In what one journalist described as the "first near-confirmation" of civilian deaths caused by U.S.-led airstrikes inside Syria, an official announcement by the Pentagon on Thursday that one of its bombs "likely led" to the death of two young children was met by derision and suspicion by experts who say the real deathtoll of innocent people killed in such strikes far exceeds the U.S. military's tepid admission.
The acknowledgement of the deaths was included in a report stemming from an internal investigation conducted by the Pentagon into specific bombings that took place on or around November 5 of last year near the Syrian town of Aleppo. According to the U.S. military, the strikes were aimed not at Islamic State (ISIS) militants—the group used by President Obama to initially justify U.S. airstrikes in the Syria—but rather another militant group operating in the country known as the Khorasan group. Despite early and repeated denials surrounding the incident and a six-month long probe, the report itself states that a "preponderance of the evidence" found by the investigators suggest the bombing "likely led to the deaths of two non-combatant children."
However, in the wake of the official statement, investigative journalist Chris Woods, who has extensively tracked the civilian impact caused by U.S. drone attacks and airstrikes around the world, was quoted by the Guardian as saying the U.S. admission was simply "too little, too late."
Woods, who has reported for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and more recently founded Airwars.org, a not-for-profit transparency project aimed at tracking and archiving the international air war against ISIS, said its inconceivable that U.S. military needed six months to investigate the incident and that its finding ignore widely available and key evidence. Citing his own research, Woods said last November’s attack may have killed up to four children, including five-year-old Daniya Ali al-Haj Qaddour.
“I am absolutely sure that Daniya was killed [in the November strike],” Woods said, adding that her mother and brother were also severely wounded in the bombing. The facts about this case "have been in the public domain for six months," Woods continued, pointing to images and details of the children’s deaths which circulated on social media in the days immediately following their deaths. "I can’t see a conceivable benefit to to waiting six months to confirm this."
According to the Guardian:
Thursday’s admission comes after several months of denials by the US that any civilians had been killed in either Syria or Iraq during the coalition’s campaign. But watchdog groups, like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, warn that many more civilian casualties have gone uncounted. By SOHR’s count, at least 66 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Syria alone since last September.
A family of five was killed in April in a suspected coalition-led air strike in Iraq, the Guardian has reported.
Since 8 August, the US-led coalition, which includes, Canada, Britain, France, Jordan and other countries, has carried out several thousand air strikes as part of the campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State militant group, which last year declared it had established a caliphate across vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. The coalition has launched nearly 4,000 air strikes in both Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this month, Al-Jazeera was among those who reported on a U.S. airstrike in northern Syria which may have killed more than fifty civilians. In a response to the Pentagon's Thursday anouncement posted on Airwars.org, the monitoring group said it will soon publish its own major report on civilians allegedly killed by the coalition since U.S.-led bombing in both Iraq and Syria began last August. It said:
Our provisional findings show that between 384 and 753 civilians have been reported killed in some 97 problem incidents, according to local and international media, and Iraqi and Syrian monitoring groups.
Verifying these claims can be extremely difficult. Most areas being bombed by the coalition are occupied by Islamic State. Civic society has often collapsed, and local people live in fear of retaliation for speaking out. Even so, evidence linking the coalition to civilian deaths can often be compelling.
"The first claims of civilian deaths from coalition actions emerged just days after air strikes began in August 2014," said Woods. "Since then, hundreds of likely non-combatant deaths have occurred, many in incidents better documented than the November 5th incident which CENTCOM has now conceded."
Despite the fact the children were killed during the airstrike, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James Terry, commander of the military operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, said that "From the investigation it can be determined that sound procedures were followed and must be followed in the future."