Demands to compensate civilian victims of US strikes in Syria
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The killing of a civilian by an American drone, who was viewed as a leader in al-Qaeda, topped the field scene in northwestern Syria, less than a month after he was targeted while awaiting the results of the investigation, which US officials said is underway.
The targeting opened the door to questions about possible legal steps for the family of the man, Lotfi Hassan Masto, and the possibility of compensating them, with assurances from his relatives, local testimonies, and the Syria Civil Defense, doubts from experts in jihadist groups, and American assumptions that the man is a civilian and does not belong to any armed faction.
Civilian not “al-Qaeda leader”
On May 3, American drones targeted Masto in Qurqanya. Hours later and in an initial statement, US Central Command, or CENTCOM, said its forces had “conducted a unilateral strike … targeting a senior al-Qaeda leader.” It did not provide any further details, according to The Associated Press.
The Syria Civil Defense responded to the strike within minutes and said about an hour later on Facebook that the man was killed by a missile strike from an unidentified drone, which targeted him while he was herding his sheep.
Local residents told Enab Baladi that the 56-year-old Masto and head of a family of 12 members, did not belong to any armed faction and did not participate in military action in Syria.
Masto also used to work in making bricks, then he worked in raising poultry and herding sheep, and he had no criminal record or carried any weapon.
Enab Baladi contacted the US Central Command on May 4 to comment on information stating that the man is a civilian and does not belong to any faction and to obtain clarifications about his association with al-Qaeda, but it did not receive a response until the moment this report was published.
Investigation still pending
The US forces used to reveal the identity of the targeted persons, and with their delay and a large number of local testimonies, demands began to increase to reveal the circumstances of the incident more, and some of them demanded prosecution and compensation.
The researcher specializing in Islamic groups, Abbas Sharifeh, called on the day of the attack to sue the US army and pay compensation to the family of the civilian victim, denying the validity of the claim that he was a jihadist leader, based on direct sources from Qurqanya, according to what he posted on Twitter.
An expert in jihadist affairs and a researcher at the Operational Analysis and Research Center, Orwa Ajjoub, commented a day after the incident on Twitter, saying, “We are still waiting for the International Coalition to tell us who struck Idlib yesterday!”
The Associated Press reported on May 9 that the US military is investigating reports that it killed a civilian in a recent strike in northwest Syria that was meant to target a senior al-Qaeda leader, a military official said in a statement.
Maj. John Moore, a CENTCOM spokesperson, said that US forces “are in the process of confirming the identity of the individual killed in the strike.”
“We are aware of the allegations of a civilian casualty, and the outcome of the confirmation process will inform if further investigation is necessary and how it should proceed,” he said.
The Washington Post reported on May 18 that US military officials had retracted allegations of killing an al-Qaeda leader in northern Idlib, and two Pentagon officials told the newspaper that “there are now doubts within the Pentagon about the identity of the person who was killed” in the raid in the town of Qurqanya.
“We are no longer confident that we killed a senior al-Qaeda official,” one of the officials added. “Although we believe the strike did not kill the original target, we believe the person is from (al-Qaeda).”
The Washington Post provided four experts in “terrorism” with details of the incident targeting the man, who in turn questioned his affiliation with al-Qaeda.
No compensation in Syria
Although it was not completely decided that the targeting targeted a civilian or a leader in al-Qaeda, the attack raised questions about the possibility of prosecution while the family is in northern Syria or compensation from the US side to the victim’s family.
Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC), told Enab Baladi that the family’s presence in the north does not preclude taking legal action, as it is possible to remotely appoint a lawyer residing in the United States and file a lawsuit against the US Department of Defense, for example.
Al-Abdallah explained that the problem lies in the fact that dealing with such cases is administrative rather than judicial, given that an investigation is required in the cases, and currently, an investigation has begun in this incident, and then a decision is taken according to the results.
He added that the complaint, in this case, is a civil complaint, not a criminal one, and therefore the most that can be obtained (in such cases) is compensation and the issuance of letters of apology after the case is considered, the strike information, intelligence information, implementation, etc. are reviewed, and a decision is made whether the strike was right or wrong.
Al-Abdallah noted that if the US forces targeted a civilian man based on the existence of a suspicion (for example, the escape of the leader and the survival of the civilian) or based on false intelligence information, then the case is based on the intent to pursue a legitimate target, and it is not considered a criminal case, but rather a civil one.
The director of the Justice and Accountability Center stated that the problem is that the US Department of Defense did not establish a compensation and apology program in Syria, so there have been demands for years to compensate the victims of the strikes, especially in northeastern Syria, during the fight against the Islamic State group.
Al-Abdallah said that it is not clear whether the US Department of Defense follows the policy that it established and created, as it previously published a policy of its own related to the issue of civilian casualties in conflicts and when the US military is involved, the Department of Defense is required to decide on these cases within 90 days of their occurrence, and therefore it must open an investigation and confirm whether there was a violation or not, and issue an apology and compensation.
For years, organizations have been calling for financial compensation for civilian victims of US strikes. The media has focused its coverage on the Pentagon’s concealment of information and documents related to civilian casualties as a result of US strikes on sites and targets in Syria, and its reticence to publish or acknowledge their numbers, for nearly nine years until today.
Some of them went as far as filing a lawsuit against the Pentagon to force it to publish documents related to civilian casualties in one of the US raids in northern Syria in 2019.
According to a research paper issued in 2021, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center called for the establishment of a comprehensive compensation program and called on Washington to address the legacy of its military presence in Syria and to compensate the families of the civilians who were affected.
The paper considered that the US government should try to address the losses, whether through injury, the loss of a loved one, or the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and called on establishing a special immigrant visa program for Syrians who cooperated with the US army.
It also called on offering B-2 visas to those injured in US strikes who need medical care and community programs to repair infrastructure, such as technical assistance in reclaiming damaged agricultural lands.
In January 2019, the International Coalition provided approximately $80,000 to victims of an attack that killed 11 civilians, including four children from the same family. However, Human Rights Watch investigations into four apparently unlawful Coalition airstrikes in al-Hasakah governorate in 2017 and 2018, which killed 63 civilians and damaged and destroyed property, did not result in any compensation or payments to victims.
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