The advocacy group Human Rights Watch is criticizing a new Department of Defense review of a 2019 airstrike in Syria that killed dozens of people, including women and children, saying the case “highlights fundamental and ongoing flaws” in how the U.S. deals with accountability for civilian harm.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon released a summary — but not the full report — of an airstrike launched near the town of Baghuz in eastern Syria that was meant to support local U.S.-allied forces who were under attack by Islamic State fighters.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered Army Gen. Michael Garrett, the head of U.S. Army Forces Command, to do an independent review of the Baghuz mission. His report issued this week concurred with an earlier assessment that the strike was a legitimate use of self-defense to support allied forces under fire.
The independent report said that “through no fault of his own,” the unnamed U.S. commander overseeing the Baghuz airstrike relied on incomplete and inaccurate data in authorizing the mission. The commander “acted within presidentially-authorized defensive rules of engagement, did not deliberately or with wanton disregard cause civilian casualties, and did not violate the laws of war.”
The report also rejected reports that the Defense Department tried to cover up the incident.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising that the U.S. Defense Department has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths,” Sarah Yager, Washington director at Human Rights Watch, said Thursday in a statement.
In addition to ordering the review of the strike, Mr. Austin ordered the Pentagon to create a “Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan” to limit civilian casualties.
Ordering a review from an independent commander such as Gen. Garrett demonstrates that the Pentagon is holding itself accountable for its acts, officials said.