US military launches investigation after possible civilian casualties in Syria strike targeting al Qaeda leader

US military launches investigation after possible civilian casualties in Syria strike targeting al Qaeda leader

The strike in Idlib, Syria, was carried out by an MQ-9 Reaper, targeting a senior al Qaeda leader and planner, Capt. Bill Urban said in a statement. The name of the target was not released, though he said the strike against the leader would disrupt al Qaeda’s operations and their ability to plan attacks.

An initial review of the strike indicated the possibility of civilian casualties.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Urban said. “The possibility of a civilian casualty was immediately self-reported to U.S. Central Command. We are initiating a full investigation of the allegations and will release the results when appropriate.”

In September, the military carried out another strike in northwest Syria targeting a senior al Qaeda leader.

The acknowledgment of potential civilian casualties and the immediate opening of an investigation comes after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a review of a strike in Syria in March 2019, which the Pentagon only recently admitted had killed civilians. In mid-November, US Central Command acknowledged for the first time that previously undisclosed airstrikes in Syria carried out days before the fall of ISIS in 2019 killed multiple civilians, including women and children. That disclosure followed the publication of a New York Times investigation into the strikes.

On November 17, Austin told reporters during a news conference that he is “committed to adjusting our policies and our procedures to make sure that we improve,” and that he would hold senior leaders responsible for putting those into effect.

Austin said he believes “leaders in this department should be held to account for high standards of conduct and leadership.”

“And for my part as secretary of Defense, I have every intent to uphold that standard,” Austin added.

But the Defense Department has yet to hold anyone accountable for a drone strike on August 29 in Kabul, Afghanistan, in which 10 civilians, including seven children, were killed. An Air Force review of the strike found that significant errors were made but that there was no violation of law, including the law of war.

There are currently two reviews related to civilian casualties from US military strikes.

The first is a civilian harm study conducted by the RAND Corporation that Congress ordered in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020. The second, also conducted by the RAND Corporation, focuses on civilian casualties in Syria. Austin said that is undergoing a security review.

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