Military concludes airstrike in Syria last May killed civilian, not terrorist

Almost a year later, the U.S. military has concluded that an airstrike last May in northwestern Syria killed a civilian, instead of a senior al Qaeda leader, as it initially claimed. 

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) released a summary Thursday of its investigation into the May 3, 2023 strike saying the investigation found the strike killed civilian Lutfi Hasan Masto, the same person that social media reports at the time identified as the victim. 

Though the investigation found several areas the command could improve on, according to the summary, it did not recommend any accountability actions for killing a civilian. The investigation concluded the strike complied with the law of armed conflict. 

On the day of the strike, CENTCOM in a statement to the media said, “On the morning of May 3, 2023, at 11:42 a.m. Syrian local time, U.S. Central Command forces conducted a unilateral strike in northwest Syria, targeting a senior al Qaeda leader. We will provide more information as operational details become available.”

It included a quote from the head of CENTCOM, Gen. Michael Kurilla: “This operation reaffirms CENTCOM’s steadfast commitment to the region and the enduring defeat of ISIS and al Qaeda.” 

Then, reports quickly surfaced that the strike had killed a civilian, not a terrorist. In a tweet on May 3, the same day as the strike, a group known as “The White Helmets” who work as first responders in Syria identified Masto as the civilian killed. The White Helmets said Masto was grazing sheep when the strike killed him and several of the sheep. 

In the days after the reports surfaced, CENTCOM conducted an initial review that found enough evidence to launch a formal investigation, known as an Army Regulation 15-6, more than a month later. CENTCOM appointed a general officer to conduct the investigation on June 23, 2023. 

Investigating officer Brig. Gen. John P. Cogbill finished the investigation on Nov. 15, 2023, according to the summary. 

In conducting the probe, Cogbill led a team of 10 senior service members and civilian employees who were not directly involved with the strike and had backgrounds in intelligence, law of armed conflict, operations, and targeting matters. The team went through training to eliminate biases, conducted site visits to the United States, Jordan, and Iraq, and interviewed over 40 witnesses. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan to limit civilian casualties in U.S. military operations after a series of media reports revealed operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan had killed more civilians than initially reported. 

The guidance also came after a botched strike during the withdrawal from Afghanistan killed 10 civilians, including seven children, instead of an ISIS-K terrorist planning an attack, as the Pentagon had claimed at first. 

CENTCOM in its summary of the investigation said it’s committed to the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan and would incorporate the lessons learned from this investigation. 

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