WASHINGTON — The US military is opening a formal investigation into airstrikes in Syria earlier this month after a Syrian rights group reported that dozens of civilians were killed, a Defense Department spokesman said Wednesday.
The airstrikes, carried out by US forces near Manbij in northern Syria on July 19, were said to have been targeting ISIS holdouts in the city, but instead killed dozens of civilians including women and children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Anti-ISIS coalition forces re-took the group’s headquarters in Manbij on July 17.
Speaking to reporters at a briefing Wednesday morning, Col. Christopher Gardner, a spokesman for the US’s counter-ISIS campaign, said the allegations of civilian casualties were deemed credible enough to warrant a full investigation.
The airstrikes started around 3 a.m. and targeted the al-Tukhar village near Manbij, which is roughly a mile from an ISIS-held frontline position, according to Munther Salal, who handles public relations for the city council office in Manbij.
“We cannot count the victims because we are still looking for them under the rubble,” he told BuzzFeed News the day after the strike.
If the airstrikes prove to be from US jets, the Manbij incident would be the highest civilian death toll for a single strike operation in the two-year war against ISIS. The Syrian Observatory said at least 56 people were killed in the strikes, but some reports put the death toll at 160. Salal said the real death toll could be in the hundreds.
Syrian rights groups that monitor the conflict inside the country said last year that civilian casualties were piling up since the US began its campaign to target ISIS and other extremists in Syria — killing far more civilians than it admits.
The Defense Department has since buckled down on transparency surrounding its campaign against ISIS, and routinely releases figures detailing where, when and how many civilians have been killed by its airstrikes against ISIS strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter had said last week that the Defense Department would probe the reports of civilian casualties.