HRW: US coalition attacked a “peaceful Mosque” in Aleppo

Syria: dozens civilians killed in new massacre by US-coalition in Aleppo
Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, dig through the rubble of a mosque following an airstrike in the village of Al-Jineh late on Thursday. Omar Haj Kadour/AFP

Human rights watch said in a new report that the US coalition is responsible for civilians’ causalities in an attack on a mosque in Syria’s Aleppo last month due to not taking enough precautions after the coalition claimed to be a center for Qaeda fighters.

At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of Baghdad in Iraq.

However, ISIS’s territory is shrinking rapidly since last year as the US-led coalition, the Turkish-backed forces, and the Russian-backed Assad regime forces have fierce fights against its forces in both Syria and Iraq.

Air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition supported the military operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but the facts on the ground reveal that no enough measures were taken to prevent civilians’ deaths, as hundreds of civilians have been killed by the coalition airstrikes since the operations started.

The deadly airstrike

More than 40 civilians were killed by US-coalition airstrikes on a mosque in Syria’s Aleppo province on March 17, while the US administration said they were targeting terrorists.

Dozens of people have been killed after fighter jets struck a packed mosque during prayer time in a rebel-held village in northern Syria, according to a monitoring group and activists.

The Observatory said the air raids in al-Jina, southwest of Atarib, in the western countryside of Aleppo, killed at least 42 people and wounded dozens.

The village is located in one of the main rebel-held parts of Syria, the northwest that includes Idlib province and the western parts of Aleppo province, and its population has been swollen by refugees, according to United Nations agencies.

The jets reportedly struck at the time of evening prayer so the mosque was full of worshippers, with local activists saying up to 300 people were inside at the time of the air raids.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, which monitors the war via a network of contacts across Syria, said that most of those killed were civilians.

“More than 100 people were wounded,” Abdel Rahman said on Thursday.

“Many people are still trapped under rubble and we believe the number of casualties will increase,” he told the DPA news agency.

US denial

The US has said it carried out an airstrike in Syria against an al-Qaida meeting but denied deliberately targeting the mosque.

“We did not target a mosque, but the building that we did target – which was where the meeting took place – is about 50ft (15 meters) from a mosque that is still standing,” said Col John J Thomas, spokesman for US Central Command.

According to a Centcom statement: “US forces conducted an air strike on an Al-Qaeda in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria, killing several terrorists.”

The Centcom spokesman later clarified that the precise location of the strike was unclear – but that it was the same one widely reported to have hit the village mosque in Al-Jina, in Aleppo province.

“We are going to look into any allegations of civilian casualties in relation to this strike,” he added.

The new report

Research by Human Rights Watch (HRW), London-based Forensic Architecture and open-source investigative unit Bellingcat reveal that US airstrikes have hit the mosque.

interviews with locals, coupled with photographs and video of the building, show it was a well-known mosque in the village of al-Jina that hosted lectures every Thursday evening, according to the investigation.

Researchers also allege that the US launched Hellfire missiles at civilians as they fled the mosque.

Ole Solvang, the lead researcher on the HRW investigation, told Al Jazeera that: “US forces failed to take the necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties. Based on statements from US military personnel, they didn’t know this was a mosque, which reflects poorly on their intel.”

HRW interviewed by phone 14 people with first-hand knowledge of the attack, including four who were in the mosque at the time of the attack.

In carrying out the investigation, HRW used research provided by Bellingcat, which analyzed video footage and photographs from the attack, and Forensic Architecture, which created models of the mosque and a reconstruction of the attack.

The three organizations conducted “separate but complementary” investigations into the attack, said Solvang.

“Our analysis reveals that contrary to US statements, the building targeted was a functioning, recently built mosque containing a large prayer hall, several auxiliary functions, and the Imam’s residence,” according to Forensic Architecture.

Witnesses told HRW that the attack began about an hour after the Maghrib (sunset) prayer and roughly 15 minutes before the Isha’a (night) prayer.

“Even if there were armed group members in the mosque, understanding the nature of the targeted building and the pattern of life around the building would be crucial to assess the risk to civilians and take necessary precautions to minimize civilian casualties,” HRW’s report said.

“Striking a mosque just before prayer and then attacking people attempting to flee the area without knowing whether they were civilians or combatants may well have been disproportionate and a violation of the laws of war even if there were armed group members in the mosque.”

Four witnesses that researchers at Human Rights Watch spoke with estimated there were 300 people attending a religious lecture at the mosque when the attack began.

“double tap” tactics

After the drone destroyed the northern segments of the building with two 500lb bombs, worshipers who fled were then targeted with what researchers from Forensic Architecture and HRW identified as likely Hellfire missiles.

US forces often use “double tap” tactics when targeting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), and it would appear that they were operating on this premise in al-Jina as well.

“We can’t say that they deliberately targeted civilians, but … nonetheless, they were civilians according to the information that we have,” said Solvang.

“People who attend the mosque and locals both said it was run by peaceful people, and first responders told us they did not find any weapons amidst the rubble.”

HRW has called for a full and transparent investigation into the attack and has asked that all findings be released in as much detail as possible.

“When viewed in the context of increasing civilian casualties, both in Syria and Iraq … we are concerned that these are signs of less stringent procedure and verification of targets,” said Solvang.

“The U.S. seems to have gotten several things fundamentally wrong in this attack, and dozens of civilians paid the price,” said Solvang. “The U.S. authorities need to figure out what went wrong, start doing their homework before they launch attacks, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.