Military investigation of suspected insider attack on U.S. forces by Syrian allies inconclusive
Military investigators at U.S. Central Command could not determine whether the shooting of a Marine by a Syrian militia member in February was the result of an insider attack, which would have been the first related to the American-backed fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
The incident had been kept under wraps by command officials in the weeks and months after the shooting. Reports of the incident only came to light in August, when details of the shooting were first reported by online news site Task and Purpose.
Two Marines, Sgt. Cameron Halkovich and Cpl. Kane Downey, were conducting base security at a small American outpost in the eastern Syrian city of Deir-e-Zour when a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF fired on the pair. Deir-e-Zour remains one of the last bastions in Syria for the terror group known as ISIS.
Sgt. Halkovich, who was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, was wounded in the attack. Cpl. Downey returned fire and killed the SDF gunman, who was lying in wait to ambush the two Marines, Task and Purpose reported. The SDF, a loose constellation of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries, were critical in driving ISIS from its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa.
Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel declined to comment on the incident, or on command efforts to determine the circumstances leading up to the shooting, during a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.
However, the Central Command team tasked with investigating the incident were “unable to conclusively determine if a U.S. Marine was shot intentionally by a Syrian Democratic Forces guard, or if he was shot as the result of a negligent discharge,” according to a command statement issued Friday.
“The nature of expeditionary operations compels commanders at all levels to continually assess risks. Our investigation led to recommendations which we have enacted. Our partners also conducted an investigation and supported our findings,” command officials wrote.
While the statement does not mention Sgt. Halkovich or Col. Downey by name, it does state the “second Marine” who returned fire and killed the attacker was awarded the Joint Service Commendation Medal for his actions.
″[The] second Marine on the scene, believing himself to be in imminent danger, acted appropriately and proportionally to the threat he perceived,” command officials wrote.
“Those actions in the face of the perception of imminent danger ... led the lead investigator to recommend the second Marine to be commended for his actions,” they added.
Investigators at Central Command plan to publicly release their findings on the incident, pending a “classification review” of those details, the statement said.
Pentagon officials as well as leadership at Central Command and Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission to defeat ISIS, have been wary to release details on American ground operations in Syria. The current counter-ISIS force in Iraq and Syria consists of about 9,000 troops, some 5,000 of which are American.