Pentagon officials initially denied that a March 16 airstrike targeting al-Jinah in Aleppo province had targeted a mosque despite the claims of first responders and activists on the ground.
A US investigation has found that a March airstrike conducted by American aircraft in northern Syria struck a building that was part of a “mosque complex” American TV network CNN reported on Thursday, citing two anonymous US defence officials.
In the aftermath of a March 16 airstrike on al-Jinah, in Aleppo province, reports emerged that the Sayidina Omar ibn al-Khattab mosque in the rebel-held town had been hit, with videos and images relayed on social media from witnesses and first responders on the ground showing images of bodies being removed from rubble.
More than 42 people were killed in the attack, according to monitoring groups. Local activists said that those in the mosque complex were non-combatants.
US officials initially denied that a mosque was targeted, stating that the airstrike had struck “an al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location” and had killed “dozens of core al-Qaeda terrorists”.
The Pentagon also released a post-strike image that showed a mosque in al-Jinah remaining intact stating:
“[We] deliberately did not target the mosque at the left edge of the photo”, adding that Washington had taken “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life.”
However, local reports, in addition to open source research conducted by both Human Rights Watch, and the University of London-based Forensic Architecture research group, suggested that the “meeting location” targeted, positioned around 40 feet away from the central mosque, was used for religious purposes.
These assertions were supported by monitoring groups Bellingcat and Airwars, citing both reports and testimonies from the ground, and open-source materials.
“Bellingcat believes that the civilian casualties caused by this strike are partially the result of the building’s misidentification,” wrote Christian Triebert, a contributor to the online publication in a report published on April 18.
Speaking to The New Arab Triebert noted that an investigation of both pre-strike, dating from 2014, and post-strike open source material appeared to show that the facility hit by the strike was part of a mosque complex and contained a prayer hall, several auxiliary functions including toilets, and an Imam’s residence.
“There were alot of firm indications that it was a mosque,” said Triebert, adding that open source investigations did not reveal whether there was an armed presence at the scene of the attack.
Religious structures, in addition to hospitals and schools are typically placed on “no strike-lists” in accordance with international humanitarian law.
CNN reported that it remained unclear whether the building targeted was listed “as a religious site on a database that the mission planners were unaware of.”
Heightened criticism of US airstrikes
The Pentagon, has in recent history, initially denied responsibility for airstrikes that have hit civilian infrastructures such as mosques, and hospitals, on a number of occasions.
Notably, in 2015 the US denied that an airstrike which killed 42 people in Kunduz, Afghanistan in 2015, had targeted a hospital, before later admitting responsibility.
Triebert notes that the al-Jinah airstrike was conducted by the US unilaterally.
However, in recent months the US-lead coalition has also received criticism that its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq are resulting in high numbers of civilian casualties.
Media reports have claimed that members of the US national security establishment have expressed concern that President Donald Trump is seeking to relax the rules of engagement and bypass Obama-era restrictions aimed at preventing civilian deaths.
But alleged rising civilian deathtolls also come at a time when the US-lead coalition is undertaking an intensified campaign targeting the Islamic State group in its bastions of Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria.
“I can’t say whether the rules of engagement have been loosened,” noted Triebert.
“The nature of targeting IS in Mosul and Raqqa, dense, historic, urban areas with narrow streets … will unfortunately mean an increased deathtoll.”
In March the Pentagon admitted that it had conducted an airstrike in Mosul in a location that local sources said more than 200 people, including women and children, had been killed.
At the time the UN described the incident as “profoundly concerning”, while Iraqi Vice President Osama Nujaifi described it as a “humanitarian disaster”.
For its part a statement released by the Pentagon said that its aircraft had targeted IS fighters and equipment “at the location corresponding to allegations of civilian casualties.”
It added that: “The coalition respects human life, which is why we are assisting our Iraqi partner forces in their effort to liberate their lands from ISIS brutality.”
While US military officials have acknowledged some role in the strike, the Pentagon is still investigating the incident, and potential other causes for the loss of life.
The US-led coalition says that 352 civilians have been killed over the course of its nearly three-year air campaign over Syria and Iraq.
A number of monitoring groups put this figure much higher. For example, Airwars estimates that US-lead airstrikes have resulted in more than 3,000 civilian deaths.