US acknowledges Syria air strike killed farmer rather than al-Qaeda leader

Botched strike is latest incident to raise questions about lack of accountability for civilian deaths from US strikes.

Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to a grave in Syria
Mohammed Hassan Masto sits next to the grave of his brother Lutfi on May 7, 2023, in the village of Qorqanya, a rural area in northwest Syria [File: Omar Albam/AP Photo]

The United States Department of Defense has acknowledged that a drone strike in Syria, initially said to have successfully targeted an al-Qaeda leader, actually killed a farmer.

The Pentagon stated on Thursday that the drone strike on May 3, 2023, killed a 56-year-old shepherd named Lutfi Hasan Masto, whom they initially misidentified as a senior member of al-Qaeda.

US Central Command, which oversees military activities in the Middle East, wrote that it “acknowledges and regrets the civilian harm that resulted from the airstrike”.

The killing of Masto is the latest incident to raise questions about the impact of US drone warfare on civilians, who often pay the price for botched strikes.

The US has become increasingly reliant on armed drones to carry out strikes in numerous countries in the Middle East and Africa, which allows its military to target armed groups without the risks or potential public backlash that accompany deploying troops on the ground.

But despite a series of high-profile incidents — including a drone strike during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians, including seven children — accountability for US officials has been rare. Families of the civilians killed in strikes have also struggled to claim restitution.

The Pentagon said that few details of the Masto investigation would be released, citing the classification of sensitive information, but that the strike complied with the laws of armed conflict.

The Washington Post, a US news outlet, published a report last year casting doubt on the Pentagon’s initial version of events regarding the strike, including its claim that it was an al-Qaeda leader who was killed.

The Associated Press also reported shortly after the strike that relatives and neighbours said that the victim had no association with armed groups and was instead a farmer who raised sheep, chickens and cattle.

“The investigation revealed several issues that could be improved,” US Central Command said. “We are committed to learning from this incident and improving our targeting processes to mitigate potential civilian harm.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies