DoD Disputes Human Rights Group's Report on Civilian Deaths in Syria

FILE - In this July 26, 2017 file photo, a U.S. soldier directs his armored convoy as Syrian children watch, on a road that leads to Raqqa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
FILE - In this July 26, 2017 file photo, a U.S. soldier directs his armored convoy as Syrian children watch, on a road that leads to Raqqa, northeast Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

The U.S. command overseeing operations in Iraq and Syria on Tuesday chastised Amnesty International's handling of its recent report that claimed the U.S.-led assault on Raqqa in 2017 was responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths.

The international human rights group published its findings in a report titled "War of Annihilation," after its researchers spent about two weeks in the devastated city, interviewing more than 100 residents, according to a report by The Associated Press.

Col. Thomas Veale, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that he had several objections to the report.

He noted that the report "underscores the human tragedy of this war," but pointed out that "Amnesty's visit to Raqqa for eleven days in February was made possible by ISIS defeat there last year."

He also criticized the organization for not including CJTF-OIR in the process. "They never asked us for a comment, an interview or a courtesy check of the draft," Veale said.

The command's "biggest objection" to the Amnesty report is an argument on page 14 that the coalition "violated international law," he said. "In other words, they are literally judging us guilty until proven innocent. That's a bold rhetorical move by an organization that fails to check the public record or consult the accused."

Veale said one example of Amnesty failing to check the public record is shown by its recommendation that the coalition's process should "provide for a cancellation of a strike if it is deemed indiscriminate or disproportionate."

He then cited a Nov. 7 briefing that "provided a specific example of a canceled strike for those reasons."

U.S. and coalition forces "adhere to a meticulous targeting strike process that always aims to minimize harm to noncombatants and civilian infrastructure," Veale said.

The command also publishes "weekly strike reports and monthly civilian casualty statements on our website."

"I will reiterate our willingness to work with anyone who has an allegation of civilian casualties," he said. "We have consistently demonstrated our willingness to consider new and compelling evidence, and we have in fact opened old cases, changing some from non-credible to credible based on more compelling evidence."

Veale was asked Tuesday how the command can be sure how many civilians were killed as the result of U.S. and coalition airstrikes.

"I am just being honest. No one will ever know," he said. "Anyone who claims they will know is lying.

"When we do our civilian casualty estimates, we are saying with a degree of certainty, 'We have killed at least X number of people,' and that is extremely unfortunate. It is a terrible, awful part of this war, and we are trying to move out of it the evidence we have ... but I don't think we will ever know those numbers," Veale said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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