As the SDF sought to take control of Al-Baghouz, the last ISIS territorial stronghold in Syria, local sources reported on what was referred to as a significant “massacre” in which between 160 and 300 civilians including 45 children were alleged killed by Coalition airstrikes according to local sources. However, Central Command has only admitted to killing four civilians and was not able to determine whether another 60 people killed were civilians or militants.
Nors For Studies – an Arabic language source which describes itself as a Syrian research centre though which was not known for casualty claims in Deir Ezzor until very recently – alleged the staggering number of 3,000 people killed by Coalition bombardments. It was unclear whether this referred to a general number of fatalities, or whether it referred to one specific incident. According to the source, 300 people were reported killed as a result of “sniping” and 300 charred bodies were found, most of whom were reported to be children and women.
According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silenty (RBSS), these people were killed in Coalition air and ground attacks aimed at expelling ISIS from the town. The source reported that ISIS used hundreds of civilians as human shields during the raids. It alleged that after SDF took control of the town, “SDF militias dug mass graves to bury those killed and even those merely injured”. Alongside the report, RBSS posted numerous graphic photos of human remains and charred bodies.
Several sources including Al Hasaka Arabea and RBSS reported that after “the images leaked”, journalists were prevented from entering Al-Baghouz camp by the “intelligence service of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party”. This intelligence service was reported to have entered with a convoy of trucks “in order to get rid of the bodies of the massacres committed by the Kurdish protection units”. Al Hasaka Arabea also claimed that the Coalition did not distinguish between civilians and members of ISIS.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SO4HR) reported 200 people including ISIS members and their families were killed in alleged Coalition bombing on Al-Baghouz camp carried out on Tuesday March 19th. The source reported that among the victims were 160 civilians, including 45 children. The bodies were reportedly buried on Wednesday morning March 20th.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called for an independent investigation into what it described as “the massacre”. The Syrian Observatory questioned whether the international coalition knew during the bombing of the camp of the presence of children and women from the families of ISIS and why media was prevented from entering the area on the morning of March 20th.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SN4HR) reported a much lower number of individuals killed in aerial and ground attacks on Al Baghouz camp over the course of the last four days before the declared capture of Al Baghouz on March 23rd. The Syrian Network said that tens of individuals were killed, including women and children, most of whom were reported to be family members of ISIS members. The Network added that it was unable to specify the details of the attacks and the death tolls at the time of writing.
The Daily Beast included information that “By the second week of March, those emerging from the town told reporters “about bodies, body parts in the streets of women and children.” Reporting at night, as Coalition strikes in the near-distance hit parts of the town where women and children likely still sheltered, CNN’s Ben Wedeman said, “There have probably been a very high number of civilian casualties, fatalities as a result of the ferocity of the airstrikes, the artillery, the mortars as well as the heavy machine gun fire.”
In May 2019, the Coalition announced that it had assessed this allegation of civilian harm as non-credible, noting “the report contains insufficient information of the time, location and details to assess its credibility.” However, they have since admitted to the attack.
An in-depth report by the New York Times years later describes a scene in which a US military drone was circling Baghouz searching for military targets but only saw a crowd of women and children. Just minutes later, “Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors. It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there.“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.” The initial battle damage assessment put the number of dead at about 70.
The Times investigation found that “the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.”
Conflicting information was given about what happened the day of the strikes. According to Central Command, recounted by the Times, “At about 10 a.m., local Syrian forces reported they were under fire and in danger of being overrun, and called for an airstrike, Central Command said. The task force drone tracked a group of fighters as they made their way through the camp to the area where the women and children sheltered. A 5th Special Forces Group officer in the task force looked at the drone footage and didn’t see any civilians, a task force officer said. But the drone he relied on had only a standard-definition camera. Central Command said there were no high-definition drones in the area that could get a better view of the target. The Special Forces officer gave the order to fire. With no precision missiles left, the command said, the ground commander called in 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The strike log classified the strike as self-defense.”
However, a high-definition drone was available and it was steaming footage of the area to the operations center in Qatar. According to three people who viewed the footage, “two or three men — not 16 — wander through the frame near the crowd. They have rifles but do not appear to be maneuvering, engaging coalition forces or acting in a way that would seem to justify a self-defense strike with 2,000-pound bombs. A chat log used by analysts who were watching the footage noted the presence of women, children and a man with a gun, but did not mention any active combat, two people who viewed the log said.”
Key findings from the Times’ investigation include that there were makeshift tents in the area at the time of the strikes and that in the days following, when the Coalition had taken over the area, the site appeared to have been bulldozed.
US Central Command acknowledged the strike and told the New York Times that “80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. It said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.” “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”
In response to The New York Times’ report on the incident in Baghouz, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III “promised to revamp military procedures and hold top officers responsible for civilian harm, but he did not discuss any systemic problems that allowed civilian casualties to persist on battlefields in Syria and Afghanistan. He also did not say whether senior officers would be held accountable.”
The Times of Israel reported that in response to the Times’ investigation, Central Command said that their investigation found that the incident “the strike was “legitimate self-defense,” “proportional” and that “appropriate steps were taken to rule out the presence of civilians.” They also added their findings that 16 ISIS fighters and at least four civilians were killed and eight civilians were wounded.
The local time of the incident is unknown.