The airstrikes at dawn on Tuesday pulverized entire families, including young children. Families that were fleeing Islamic State fighters, but were instead mistaken for being those fighters. Depending on who you ask, the number of bodies found in the rubble is either 56, 85, 160 or 212. Pictures of the mangled bodies, covered in dust, lay testament to the carnage.
Locals who live near the place where the bombs came down — about 10 miles north of Manbij in northern Syria — said the only planes they’d seen since June were from the American-led coalition. The area is just a few miles north of the front line between the Islamic State and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ground troops supplied by the coalition. If Tuesday’s airstrikes were indeed by coalition jets, and not Russian or Syrian government ones, this would easily be the highest civilian toll of any action by the coalition since it formed in 2014.
Pressed with the likelihood of a grave error, American officials responded cautiously, emphasizing the need to verify what happened.
“If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step,” read a statement from CENTCOM. The military also said that it had carried out 18 airstrikes Tuesday around Manbij. That is a small chunk of the 450 near the city since May, and the 10,500 total since the campaign began.
“This has been the most precise air campaign in history, and we’re going to make sure that it stays that way, but I don’t have any further information on this,” said Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. The U.S. military has since announced that it is indeed launching an investigation into the claims.
But the probability that it was a coalition airstrike makes this a huge deal, beyond the fact that dozens, if not hundreds, of civilians died. The dead and their kin are the same people whose hearts and minds the coalition hopes to win over. The deaths, and the perception that they were caused by the coalition, means that that hope is likely lost. Liz Sly, one of The Post’s Middle East correspondents, reported that many soldiers in the SDF were questioning whether they could remain in the force.
“People are now full of hatred for the SDF. We thought they were coming to finish ISIS, but it seems they are finishing us first,” said Jassem al-Sayed, a politician from Manbij, speaking with Sly over the phone.
From the perspective of a Western onlooker, Tuesday’s strikes are easy enough to write off as another grisly chapter in a grinding war. And for the American military, it is likely another internal investigation that will wear on until the public has largely forgotten which airstrikes and which civilians it’s talking about. The average time between a strike and the release of a redacted CENTCOM investigative report is seven months, said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
But in November, CENTCOM announced it would stop publicly releasing the results of each and every investigation. Anyhow, there had been unclear standards for how much is released before that. CENTCOM press releases, often published in bulk on Friday afternoons, usually only list a date, a location and an estimation of civilian harm, while the nitty-gritty of the investigation remains redacted or simply unreleased.
In other words, it is possible but improbable that we will hear the final word from the U.S. military on what happened on Tuesday, and whether the coalition bears any culpability.
The American military has no strategic imperative to kill Syrian civilians, so the probability of faulty intelligence being the cause is high. Being so close to the front line, it is entirely possible that civilians here were being used as human shields for the Islamic State as they have been elsewhere.
But a prolonged investigation resulting in a redacted document is tantamount to obfuscation. If the coalition isn’t to blame, then why aren’t they rushing to absolve themselves?