US officials have been accused of covering up alleged war crimes following a 2019 bombing raid in Syria which killed at least 80 people, the vast majority of whom are thought to have been civilians.
Details of the cover-up, revealed by the New York Times, suggest that the military had tried to underplay the number of casualties.
A 500lb bomb is said to have been dropped on a crowd of mostly women and children huddled on the banks of the River Euphrates next to a town called Baghuz. The last remnants of Daesh fighters were holding out in the north-eastern Syrian town, although drone footage showed only the women and children. The NYT reported that, without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone's high-definition field of vision and dropped a bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped another two bombs, killing most of the survivors of the first strike.
The raid had apparently been called in by a classified US Special Forces unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. It's said that the force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions.
According to the NYT, at nearly every subsequent step the US military moved to conceal the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed; reports were delayed, sanitised and classified; and US-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. Furthermore, senior officers were not notified.
The shock of analysts monitoring the raid was mentioned in the NYT report. "Who dropped that?" said one confused analyst on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone images following the explosion. Another responded, "We just dropped on 50 women and children."
An initial battle damage assessment found that the number of dead was actually about 70. When details of the raid were presented to US Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, it acknowledged the strikes for the first time, and admitted that 80 people were killed. However, it insisted that the air strikes were justified, mentioning that 16 Daesh fighters had also been killed.
Air Force lawyer Lieutenant Colonel Dean W Korsak believed that he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed the leadership and US Air Force criminal investigators to act. Korsak said that "senior ranking US military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process."
He claimed that a unit had intentionally entered false strike log entries, "clearly seeking to cover up the incidents." Calling the classified death toll "shockingly high," he pointed out that the military did not follow its own requirements to report and investigate the strike.
"Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it," said Gene Tate, an evaluator who worked on the case for the inspector general's office and agreed to discuss the aspects that were not classified. "It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what's right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it."
This is the latest war crime allegation against the US. It comes a month after the International Criminal Court (ICC) dropped its investigation into US war crimes in Afghanistan.