The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a correction to a statement about a March 2019 airstrike in Syria on Tuesday — more than two years after the fact. The correction comes as the strike is under new scrutiny after a New York Times investigation last week about the strike’s civilian casualties.
In an emailed statement to American Military News, CENTCOM said it had initially identified two of the three bombs dropped during the 2019 strike in Syria as 2,000-pound munitions when they had actually all been 500-pound munitions.
“While reviewing the investigation and coordinating the public statement
regarding details of the U.S. airstrikes on March 18, 2019, in Baghouz,
Syria, the CENTCOM Public Affairs shop misidentified the munitions used as
two 2,000-pound precision-guided munitions and one 500-pound precision-guided munition,” the CENTCOM statement reads.
The effort to correct the record comes days after the New York Times reported U.S. aircraft dropped bombs over a crowd of people crowded near a riverbank. Based on the initial identification of the munitions used, the New York Times reported an F-15E fighter jet initially dropped a 500-pound bomb and then another aircraft dropped two more bombs, each about four times the size of the first. CENTCOM’s correction indicates the second and third bombs dropped were smaller than it previously reported.
According to a secure military chat log, an analyst who observed the March 18, 2019 strike through drone footage typed “Who dropped that?” Another analyst responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”
Following the 2019 strike, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak — a lawyer for the Air Force — ordered the units involved to preserve nine pieces of evidence and he reported the strike to his chain of command, according to an email he later sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Korsak also notified the command of concerns that the unit appeared to be covering up the alleged war crimes by adding details to the strike log that would help them to better justify the strike as self-defense. Korsak told the Senate committee that commanders did not take action.
In response to the New York Times’ reporting, CENTCOM acknowledged the March 18, 2019 strike for the first time and said 80 people in total were killed, but that the strikes were justified. The command said the bombs killed 16 ISIS fighters and four civilians. The identities of the 60 people killed remain unclear. In its statement, CENTCOM told the New York Times it was not clear that the remaining 60 people were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.
CENTCOM spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban told the Washington Post that the group targeted in the March 18, 2019 strike included “multiple armed women” and “at least one” armed child.
Urban told the New York Times, “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them. In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby also addressed the 2019 strike in Syria during a press briefing on Monday. Kirby said the Department of Defense had previously commissioned two studies looking into civilian casualties as a result of U.S. strikes. Kirby said one of the two studies looks at civilian casualties in Syria specifically but he could not confirm if the study addressed this specific March 18, 2019 strike.