The US military has opened a formal investigation into a 19 July airstrike in northern Syria that local and outside observers consider the deadliest coalition attack on civilians in its two-year war against the Islamic State militant group.
The strike, in the village of Tokkhar, took place during a grueling battle for Manbij, a strategically critical Syrian city, that is now in its third month.
Army Col Christopher Garver, chief spokesman for the Baghdad-based US militarycommand, said on Wednesday that the allegations surrounding the fateful strike are “credible enough” to warrant a formal investigation. Word of the investigation comes approximately a week before an internal deadline to launch an inquiry.
The civilian casualty death toll from the strike, remains under dispute.
The UK-based monitoring group Airwars has concluded that at least 74 civilians – now that a 14-year old girl has died of her wounds – have died, but Chris Woods, the group’s lead researcher, said the total could be as many as 203.
In contrast, Garver, the US military spokesman, said he had seen figures suggesting 10-15 civilians died in the attack.
US investigators are unlikely to visit the scene of the destruction, which has been the setting for a grueling fight between Isis and the US’s Syrian Arab and Kurdish proxy forces since 21 May.
Information gleaned from social media, journalism and other public sources will inform the inquiry, Garver said, as will proprietary US military information, such as geospatially located ordnance impacts.
“We know what our rounds hit, we know what we’re shooting,” Garver said, adding that the US also knows promptly if a bomb or missile’s targeting array has malfunctioned.
Unlike in other US conflicts during the post-9/11 era, the dead from Tokkhar are not anonymous. Airwars, drawing from several local sources, has published the family names of the dead.
Woods, the London-based lead investigator for Airwars, greeted the US inquiry, even as he warned that the fight for Manbij has become dire for civilians caught between the US above, its allies below and Isis around.
“This is the fastest admission of likely civilian casualties that we’ve seen from the coalition from the event to a declaration of an investigation. This is a welcome move. If the public accounts are accurate, this is the single worst civilian casualty event of the entire war” that the coalition has caused, Woods said.
Woods’s tally involves checking across what he said were five different casualty lists maintained by Syrians, to include locals from the Manbij area. He said he believes that the death toll’s credible high end is likely to reach 120-150 civilians, to include women and children.
Thus far, according to Garver, the US has conducted 520 strikes in support of the Manbij offensive. The US has rejected calls from Syrian opposition groups to pause airstrikes in light of the Tokkhar strike, considering Manbij critical to disrupting Isis’s exfiltration of militants through Turkey and as a stepping stone to toppling the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa. According to a United Nations report from 18 July, an estimated 30,000-40,000 civilians remain in Manbij.
Woods warned that Tokkhar is “just one of a really quite shocking number of alleged coalition civilian casualty events relating to the Manbij campaign”.
Since 21 May, Airwars has tracked 47 separate civilian casualty incidents related to Manbij alone. The claimed fatality range for those civilians spans from 310 to 548. Garver said the coalition is still assessing the credibility of a different allegation in the area stemming from 23 July, after Tokkhar, ahead of a decision to open an investigation into that one.
Woods said Airwars assesses 33 of those incidents to have at least two sources indicating that the US-led coalition is responsible. He estimates 229-425 civilians have died in those events, with 192 of them named. Of those, 56 were reportedly children and 29 were reportedly women.
Should those numbers prove to be correct, they would indicate that approximately 150 Syrian civilians have been killed by US airstrikes outside of the 19 July Tokkhar strike, and just during the Manbij battle alone.
Woods does not blame the dire civilian circumstances in Manbij on the US alone. Accounts from within Manbij claim that Isis has placed snipers within the city for civilians attempting escape, boobytrapped homes with explosives and used noncombatants as human shields – the latter two claims echoing those also made by the US military.
“This is a ghastly, ghastly campaign,” Woods said.
There is no announced timeline for the US inquiry into Tokkhar to conclude. But Woods noted that the US typically takes six months after a civilian casualty incident to publicly report a verified one.
“We can’t wait that long. Manbij is a hot campaign. Civilians are dying right now and tactical changes need to happen right now. Commanders need to be making faster assessments of what went wrong at Tokkhar, what’s going wrong in Manbij more broadly, and adjust. We can’t wait six months,” he said.