This article was updated on March 17th to reference new reports in Step News and the Washington Post.
Military officials have confirmed to Airwars that a strike in rural Aleppo which reportedly left dozens dead in and around a mosque was carried out by US aircraft.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said that at least 42 people, mostly civilians, were killed in a strike that “targeted a mosque in al-Jinah village” in the western countryside of Aleppo on March 16th. “The death toll is expected to rise,” said the monitor.
Video posted by the White Helmets showed men being dug out from rubble at the site. Local activists told al Jazeera that the attack took place during evening prayer, when the mosque was full of “up to 300 people.” Other accounts put the death toll far higher.
Initial reporting was conflicting, including assertions that Russian forces or the Assad regime were to blame. Photographs reportedly from the site and posted on social media also appeared to depict weapons fragments similar to those found at previous US drone strikes in Syria.
Photo shows the remnants of a bomb used in the airstrike on the ‘Umar ibn Al-Khaṭṭāb mosque in the rebel-held village of al-Jinā, w-Aleppo. pic.twitter.com/aGsqMjcWIJ
— Sakir Khader (@sakirkhader) March 16, 2017
— Syrian Lense (@SyrianLense) March 16, 2017
Airwars was initially told by US Central Command (CENTCOM) that a strike was carried out late on March 16th, but in Idlib governorate. That is where the bulk of US strikes against alleged al Qaeda-linked targets have taken place since 2014. The unilateral American campaign exists in parallel to operations conducted by the anti-ISIS Coalition. Strikes and reported civilian casualties from both have risen significantly since last fall.
However, a US official later clarified that the US raid in fact took place in the vicnity of al-Jinah village, which is located in western Aleppo governorate, just a few kilometers from the border with Idlib. CENTCOM spokesperson Maj. Josh Jacques said the target was “assessed to be a meeting place for al Qaeda, and we took the strike.”
“It happened to be across the street from where there is a mosque,” said Jacques. He said the mosque was not the target, and that it wasn’t hit directly. Both CENTCOM and the Pentagon told Airwars that they were further investigating the attack.
Videos identified by researchers at the citizen journalism outlet Bellingcat appeared to show parts of the mosque destroyed, while others remained upright.
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) March 17, 2017
Citing local sources, the outlet Step News said the strikes hit a gathering known as a Dawah. A local group, reported Step “holds a meeting in one of their centres every Thursday which is attended by dozens of students of religious studies, sheikhs, sharia experts and fighters in the Islamic factions and civilians from the region.”
On March 17th, the Washington Post, citing a U.S. official, said that the attack “involved two Reaper drones, which fired four Hellfire missiles and dropped at least one 500-pound GPS-guided bomb.”
The death toll, which could not immediately be confirmed, appears to be at least the second largest ever from US strikes aimed at alleged al-Qaeda targets in Syria. On January 19th, more than 100 fighters gathered at a training camp in Idlib were reportedly killed in a raid that involved a B-52 bomber. Most of those killed were said to belong to the militant group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, officially claimed to split with the terror group in July 2016, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Since January 2017 it operates under the umbrella group Tahrir al-Sham. The US military carries out attacks against alleged al Qaeda targets under the same 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress passed several days after the 9/11 attacks. The strikes employ an expansive definition of “associated forces” – a phrase not used in the AUMF, but which has been adopted by the Pentagon and successive US administrations. It could now apply to thousands of fighters in Syria.