Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Forensic Architecture and Bellingcat, have investigated the U.S.-coalition bombing of a mosque in Syria last month. All found that the U.S. failed to prevent civilian casualties and suggested the attack could constitute a war crime.
DAMASCUS – On March 16, U.S. military aircraft bombed a location southwest of al-Jinah, a small village in Syria’s city of Aleppo. The U.S. military has maintained that it was targeting a meeting of al-Qaeda members in a partially-built community hall.
But accounts from local residents and survivors, as well as separate investigations by three international watchdog groups, indicate that the building was actually the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque and that the strike’s estimated 38 victims were all civilians.
This stands in sharp contrast to the U.S. military’s assurance that they took “extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life” and had conducted extensive surveillance of the area prior to launching the strike. The Pentagon continues to maintain that the building hosted a “meeting of senior al-Qaeda terrorists” and that it was used as a gathering place to educate and indoctrinate fighters, though they did admit that a mosque was nearby.
While the U.S. has promised to launch an investigation into whether civilians were killed, as opposed to “al-Qaeda operatives,” three watchdog organizations have already completed their own investigations into the incident. The organizations – Bellingcat, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Forensic Architecture – ultimately pieced together a very different account than that provided by the Pentagon.
According to their independent investigations, the U.S. military failed to identify the building, which had several clear features marking it as a mosque. They found that the building was widely known as a place of worship by residents in the surrounding area. In addition, research revealed that the U.S. bombing took place right before prayer was about to begin – a gross negligence of intelligence gathering, as the regional prayer schedule is easily found online.
Watch Al-Jinah Mosque by Forensic Architecture:
The fact that people were gathering in the mosque for prayer and that a regular religious lecture was in progress at the time of the attack meant that the building was full of civilians at the time.
The organizations also noted that Syrian groups normally sympathetic to the U.S. have confirmed that the building was a mosque and that those killed were civilians. These groups include the Western-funded White Helmets and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In addition, Human Rights Watch (HRW), after extensively interviewing survivors, local residents and first responders to the site, found no evidence that al-Qaeda or any other armed groups were meeting in the mosque.
First responders told HRW that the dead and injured were in civilian clothing and no weapons were found at the site. They also noted that the U.S. has yet to release evidence to support their claims that al-Qaeda met at the mosque or was even active in the targeted area. They concluded that the negligence practiced by the Pentagon in approving the strike violated the laws of war and could constitute a war crime.
This is by no means the first time that the Pentagon has been caught bombing civilians that they have labeled terrorists as an apparent afterthought. Indeed, the release of the “Drone Papers” in 2015 revealed that this is a common practice – nearly 90 percent of all people who are killed in U.S. airstrikes are not the intended targets, but are often civilians. The papers also revealed that the government intentionally labels those killed as enemy combatants in order to avoid having to report civilian casualties, which would threaten any continued military action.
Unfortunately for civilians in countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen deadly airstrikes are likely to only become more commonplace now that President Donald Trump has given the Pentagon “freedom of initiative” to launch airstrikes abroad without the need for presidential approval. Since Trump’s war power giveaway in March, the number of civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq has jumped to 1,05,8 compared to 465 last December, before Trump took office.
With a more recent U.S. airstrike in Iraq claiming the lives of an estimated 200 civilians, it seems that tragedies like that which occurred at the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque will become more and more frequent.
Read the full report on the incident by Human Rights Watch below: