Covert US Drone Strike Unit That Massacred Syrian Civilians Had Carte Blanche for 5 Years - Report
22:43 GMT 12.12.2021 (Updated: 20:14 GMT 19.10.2022)
The shadowy US mission in Syria is ostensibly against Daesh*, but aids Kurdish separatists and anti-government militants, while frequently targeting Syrian forces and Iraqi volunteer militia fighting terrorists. But the indiscriminate toll of civilian deaths has just recently brought the mission under a new spotlight.
A secret US Air Force (USAF) drone strike unit was allowed to operate in Syria for five years even as it broke rules of engagement and civilian casualties mounted, it has been revealed.
The New York Times
reported on Sunday that the unit, code-named Talon Anvil, operated from Iraq's Kurdistan region and even inside Syria from 2015 to 2019, ostensibly targeting Daesh militants.
But it drew complaints from the CIA, USAF intelligence and others for killing farmers in their fields, children in the street, refugees and villagers hiding in buildings.
“They were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs,” said a former Air Force intelligence officer, who was with the unit from 2016 to 2018. “But they also made a lot of bad strikes.”
Talon Anvil was a small unit, often comprised of less than 20 personnel, who directed deadly air raids from in front of computer screens in civilian buildings in Iraq's Erbil and north-eastern Syria. Operatives wore civilian clothes without rank or insignia, and many grew long beards.
But it directed a significant proportion of the 112,000 bombs and missiles dropped on supposed Daesh targets, working with Kurdish separatists and Islamist 'rebels' in the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The US operations in Syria
— conducted illegally without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad's government — were officially kept under close control by top brass. But four serving and former officers said most airstrikes were ordered by low-ranking Army Delta Force commandoes.
In one incident in March 2017, aircraft directed by the team dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building in the village of Karama, where more than 50 people were taking cover.
The former USAF intelligence officer said a Talon Anvil operative typed messages via a live text chat.
"All civilians have fled the area. Anyone left is an enemy fighter," a message stated. "Find lots of targets for us today because we want to go Winchester" — USAF jargon for expending all munitions.
The officer said he saw video recorded by drone-mounted cameras after the first bomb hit that showed women and children stumbling from the rubble, some missing limbs or dragging the corpses of others. His team sent Talon Anvil an initial assessment of 23 killed or seriously injured and 30 lightly hurt.
Drone coordinators merely acknowledged the message before pressing on with more attacks.
29 November 2021, 21:48 GMT
Former Pentagon and State Department adviser Larry Lewis said Talon Anvil's toll of innocents was ten times that of other units.
"It was much higher than I would have expected from a US unit," Lewis stressed. "The fact that it increased dramatically and steadily over a period of years shocked me."
He said the unit increasingly came to justify attacks on targets up to 100 miles from the front lines on the spurious grounds of defending US troops embedded in the SDF. "It’s more expedient to resort to self-defence," Lewis said. "It’s easier to get approved."
Lewis also said that General Stephen Townsend, who headed the US-led coalition operations against Daesh — which frequently hit Syrian troops fighting terrorists — dismissed reports of civilian casualties in the media and from human rights organisations.
Townsend's superior in the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, claimed the shadowy nature of the US intervention meant his troops could not verify the results of bombing and missile attacks on "targets".
"Our ability to get out and look after a strike was extraordinarily limited — it was an imperfect system," Votel told the New York Times. "But I believe we always took this seriously and tried to do our best," he said.
The US military presence in Syria has come under renewed scrutiny since it emerged that an air raid on the town of Baghuz in March 2019, called in by Task Force 9 unit, killed up to 80 civilians.
* Islamic State, banned as a terrorist organisation under UN Security Council resolution.