In what may have been the single greatest loss of life from a Coalition action in the first two years of its war against Daesh, between 78 and 203 civilians were reported killed in a catastrophic event at the village of Tokhar – the scene of a number of other recent civilian fatalities from alleged Coalition strikes.
The Coalition later admitted that “up to 24 civilians who had been interspersed with combatants were inadvertently killed.”
Local group Manbij Mother of All The World was the first to report the event, initially noting 25 or more fatalities. The group quickly raised the death toll to 56 then 59 civilians, eventually reporting that as many as 203 non-combatants had died. Most others placed the fatality range in the low 100s. Manbij Direct noted shortly after the strike, for example, that “so far there have been 94 martyrs identified, but there are still entire families under the rubble.” So-called Islamic State also issued a tweet mid-morning suggesting that 160 civilians had died. At least 73 deceased civilians have so far been named, including 11 or more children.
There was some confusion about the site of the event. While Manbij Mother of All Worlds said five homes were struck on the outskirts of town, most other sources said a former school being used by displaced civilians was hit.
According to Syria Direct, “The airstrike, at 3:00am Tuesday morning, destroyed a school in a-Tokhar.” The news site quoted local citizen journalist Abu Omar al-Manbiji as saying: “That school housed displaced people from neighboring villages. So far we count 124 dead from the attack, and that number could very well increase.” Others placed the event nearer 5am.
The Coalition told reporters it was aware of the Tokhar allegations and had launched a preliminary investigation.
The New York Times reported that “The Pentagon claimed that the 2016 strike had killed as many as 24 civilians, but some estimates ran much higher than that, possibly higher than 200.” Witnesses recounted to the reporter that “as the fighting between the Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS grew more and more intense, some 200 villagers from homes near the front line trekked to the outer edge of Tokhar and took shelter in four homes, in a place far from the fighting. They assumed they would be safe there, because ISIS had not been near any of the homes. But on July 19, coalition forces carried out a series of strikes.” The reporter put the death toll at at least 120 people killed in the Tokhar strike ad spoke with more than a dozen, who showed her debilitating injuries. “Some told me that so many people were killed that there weren’t enough young men left to pull the bodies from the rubble. It took nearly two weeks, and even then, some of the victims were never found.”
The Coalition provided this information to the NYT reporter: “A dynamic strike had been called in by a Special Operations force — I later learned from another source that it was Task Force 9 — in northern Syria. Members of Task Force 9, which was supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, had received reports of ISIS fighters traveling in areas that were “devoid of civilians.” Concluding that the fighters were assembling for a counterattack against the S.D.F., the task force destroyed three “staging sites” and five vehicles. They were confident of having killed 85 ISIS fighters, but the assessment team later concluded that between seven and 24 civilians “may have been intermixed” with ISIS fighters. ”
The US’s proxies said they had supplied the intelligence for the strike, with the SDF noting in a statement that “a large group of Daesh militants was moving in the vicinity of the village and within Altokhar, with their vehicles and military equipment… We had received information that the village is free from civilians.”
The SDF also claimed local groups were fabricating civilian casualty claims, in order to aid ISIL and discredit Kurdish forces.
In contrast, the US’s other proxy the Free Syrian Army condemned “the horrific massacres committed – and which are still being committed – by the international coalition aircraft against unarmed civilians in the city and countryside of Manbej.”
The Assad regime-controlled SANA instead claimed French aircraft were reponsible for the deaths: “French warplanes working as part of the so-called ‘international coalition’ led by the United States over the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic committed an illegal and bloody massacre (which is an affront to humanity) near the Syrian-Turkish border. They targeted with a violent aerial bombardment the village of Greater Tokhar, a peaceful village located in the northern outskirts of the city Manbej – exterminating entire families and flattening homes in an inhumane manner.”
In a case study issued in October 2016, it was noted that “Satellite imagery from 21 July 2016 analysed by Amnesty International indicates nine locations in which houses were severely damaged or destroyed – although given other fighting and air strikes in the area they cannot be conclusively linked with the same air strikes.” The international NGO added that “The attacks appear to have been conducted without adequate precautions taken to safeguard civilians and may have amounted to indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.”
And following its own lengthy investigation, the Syrian Network noted: “SNHR documented the killing of 98 civilians, including 59 children and 27 women, in a bombing by fixed-wing international coalition forces warplanes on Al Toukhar village.”
On December 1st the Coalition issued a lengthy statement in which it conceded it had killed civilians – though far below public estimates: “During a strike that killed nearly 100 ISIL fighters, and destroyed 13 fighting positions, seven ISIL vehicles, two VBIEDs, a tactical vehicle, and a mortar system, it is assessed that up to 24 civilians who had been interspersed with combatants were inadvertently killed in a known ISIL staging area where no civilians had been seen in the 24 hours prior to the attack. Reports indicated that approximately 100 ISIL fighters were preparing for a large counterattack against partnered Syrian Arab Coalition/Syrian Democratic Forces and, unknown to Coalition planners, civilians were moving around within the military staging area, even as other civilians in the nearby village had departed over the previous days”
In July 2019 the Coalition provided Airwars with the location of this incident, accurate to within a 100 metre box.
The local time of the incident is unknown.