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US airstrike Syria

A man cycles through his bombed-out neighborhood in Kobane, Syria after it was hit by a series of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on October 16, 2015. (Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images)

'Stomach-Wrenching' Report Reveals Secret US Strike Command's High Civilian Death Toll

The unit, called Talon Anvil, is said to have killed Syrian civilians at 10 times the rate of similar airstrikes elsewhere in the so-called War on Terror.

Brett Wilkins

Peace advocates on Monday responded to a report about a U.S. military unit that killed Syrian civilians at 10 times the rate of similar operations in other theaters of the so-called War on Terror by accusing the United States of hypocritically sanctioning countries while committing atrocities of its own, and by reminding people that there is no such thing as a "humane" war.

"Years later, we hear about all the civilians obliterated but are left with a fait accompli and no accountability."

On Sunday, The New York Times reported the existence of Talon Anvil, a "shadowy force" that "sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians" in aerial bombardments targeting militants in Syria. The unit "worked in three shifts around the clock between 2014 and 2019, pinpointing targets for the United States' formidable air power to hit: convoys, car bombs, command centers, and squads of enemy fighters."

"But people who worked with the strike cell say in the rush to destroy enemies, it circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants, and alarmed its partners in the military and the CIA by killing people who had no role in the conflict," the paper reported, including "farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings."

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group CodePink, told Common Dreams Monday that "it is stomach-wrenching to read how secret U.S. teams in Syria run by low-level officers made life-and-death decisions about when and where to drop 500-pound bombs."

"Years later, we hear about all the civilians obliterated but are left with a fait accompli and no accountability," she added. "This, let's remember, is coming from the nation that just hosted a 'Summit for Democracy' where we droned on and on about human rights."

Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser who co-authored a 2018 Defense Department report on civilian harm, told the Times that Talon Anvil's civilian casualty rate was 10 times higher than in operations he tracked in Afghanistan.

One former Air Force intelligence officer who worked on hundreds of Talon Anvil missions said those who ordered the strikes "were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs, but they also made a lot of bad strikes."

In one of the deadliest of those "bad strikes," scores of civilians were killed in a March 18, 2019 airstrike on a crowd of mostly women and children in Baghuz. It was a so-called "double-tap" strike—first, an F-15E fighter jet dropped a 500-pound bomb; then another warplane dropped a 2,000-pound bomb to kill most of the survivors. U.S. military officials then attempted to cover up the apparent war crime.

TheTimes said there were attempts by Talon Anvil members to "blunt criticism and undercut potential investigations," with personnel "directing drone cameras away from targets shortly before a strike hit, preventing collection of video evidence."

As errant strikes and civilian casualties mounted, so did internal protests. According to the Times:

Pilots over Syria at times refused to drop bombs because Talon Anvil wanted to hit questionable targets in densely populated areas. Senior CIA officers complained to Special Operations leaders about the disturbing pattern of strikes. Air Force teams doing intelligence work argued with Talon Anvil over a secure phone known as the red line. And even within Talon Anvil, some members at times refused to participate in strikes targeting people who did not seem to be in the fight.

Talon Anvil began during former President Barack Obama's war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and continued through much of the Trump administration, which escalated airstrikes against ISIS—with devastating consequences for noncombatants.

Thousands of noncombatants died in Syria and Iraq; in the wider 20-year so-called War on Terror, around 900,000 men, women, and children—nearly 400,000 of them civilians—have been killed by U.S.-led bombs and bullets, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

"There is no such thing as a 'humane' war, much as we might want there to be," Joel Mathis wrote for The Week. "Since the emergence of 'smart bomb' weaponry during the first Gulf War three decades ago—and especially since drone strikes became a tool against suspected terrorists and even U.S. citizens under President Obama—the American government and its allies have tried to convince the public that they can and do inflict fearsome destruction on their enemies, but with a rigor that allows them to largely avoid causing injury and death to bystanders. It's never really worked out that way."

Writing for World Socialist Web Site, Patrick Martin accused the Times of "the ultimate hypocrisy."

"Its news pages detail atrocities committed by the American government in Syria," he noted. "More than 10 years ago, however, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks made public the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries, internal U.S. military reports that documented countless cases of the American military killing civilians, including the haunting 'Collateral Murder' video that shows an Apache helicopter gunship slaughtering a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists."

"But," Martin added, "the Times says not a word in defense of Assange, who is in imminent danger of extradition to the United States for trial, imprisonment, and potential execution by the very government that is responsible for the crimes detailed by the Times."

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