US Begins New Probe into Whether US Airstrikes Killed Syrian Civilians

FILE: This Wednesday June 8, 2016 video grab shows smoke rising from the city of Manbij, Syria. (ARAB 24 via AP)
FILE: This Wednesday June 8, 2016 video grab shows smoke rising from the city of Manbij, Syria. (ARAB 24 via AP)

U.S. Central Command has launched a second formal fact-finding investigation into credible evidence that U.S. airstrikes killed civilians in and around the ISIS stronghold of Manbij in northeastern Syria, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

The latest investigation, similar to an Article 15-6 investigation under Army regulations, will focus on a July 28 airstrike near Manbij that allegedly killed civilians, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Last week, CentCom opened a separate formal investigation into a July 19 airstrike near Manbij. CentCom had also looked into yet another airstrike in or around Manbij on July 23 but found that allegations of civilian deaths were not credible, Davis said.

Those investigations are the only ones that have thus far resulted from more than 500 airstrikes conducted by the U.S. and its coalition partners in the Manbij area in support of the U.S.-backed forces of the Syrian-Arab Coalition, according to the Pentagon.

The SAC forces backed by Syrian Kurdish fighters have been trying for weeks to take Manbij from the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Davis said it was "fair to say" that the SAC forces have now gained control of about 70 percent of the city, considered a key center for receiving foreign fighters crossing from Turkey to join ISIS.

The two investigations on the Manbij airstrikes were being conducted by an appointed officer and do not come under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but could potentially lead to disciplinary action.

Last week, following the announcement that an investigation had begun into the July 19 airstrike, the Pentagon released statistics on allegations of civilian deaths from airstrikes since the air campaign of Operation Inherent Resolve began in August 2014.

The Pentagon said that there have been a total of 202 allegations of civilian casualties from airstrikes. Of those 202 allegations, 143 have been judged by the military not to be credible. Of the 59 remaining allegations, 36 have been investigated and resulted in findings that a total of 55 civilians were killed and 29 were injured.

The Pentagon said that 23 allegations were still the subject of open investigations, raising the possibility that the military's estimate of civilian deaths could increase substantially.

In a briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad last week, Army Col. Chris Garver, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said of the July 19 airstrike near Manbij that some unverified estimates put the civilian death toll at more than 70.

He said that "credible evidence" from the initial U.S. assessment was enough for the command to conclude that "Yes, we have enough to initiate a formal investigation."

Garver also described fighting between SAC forces and what he called "Daesh," an Arabic acronym for ISIS, that led to the airstrike. During the fighting, "our SAC partner force observed a large group of Daesh fighters in a convoy who appeared to be readying for a counter-attack against SAC troops in the area, and a strike was called in on Daesh," he said.

"The strike was against both buildings and vehicles," Garver said. "Afterwards, we received reports from several sources, both internal and external, that there may have been civilians in the area who are mixed in and among the Daesh fighters."

Garver also said that ISIS has a track record in Manbij and elsewhere of using civilians as human shields or as "bait" to draw in airstrikes that kill innocents and then can be used as propaganda against the U.S. and the coalition.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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