This week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syrian war - and it was an especially brutal seven days, with a mosque allegedly damaged by a U.S. airstrike, a twin suicide bombing in Damascus and claims of phosphorus-bomb attacks by Russian and Syrian warplanes.
The death toll in Thursday’s U.S. airstrike on the village of al-Jinah, on the border of the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, rose overnight to 46, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group.
The observatory, which uses a network of sources on the ground in Syria for its reporting, claims a majority of those killed were civilians.
U.S. defense officials say the mosque was not the target of the airstrike but that a meeting of al-Qaida militants nearby was. A number of extremists had been killed in the raid, they say. In a statement, the spokesman for the United States Central Command said the warplanes had hit a nearby building, but missed the mosque, which was full at the time for evening prayer.
“U.S. forces conducted an airstrike on an al-Qaida in Syria meeting location March 16 in Idlib, Syria. We did not target any mosques,” said Col. John Thomas. “What we did target was destroyed. There is a mosque within 50 feet of that building that is still standing.” He added that claims of civilian deaths would be investigated but that the Pentagon has aerial photography indicating the mosque was still standing.
Later Friday, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters that defense officials believe dozens of core al-Qaida leaders were killed in the U.S. strike.
Capt. Jeff Davis also said the mosque had not been targeted and he released a post-strike aerial photograph showing the mosque adjacent to a destroyed building."I wanted to draw your attention to it, because I think there are a lot of reports suggesting that we had targeted a mosque," he said. "We did not. Of course, you know we never would."
The strike he said had been conducted by manned and unmanned aircraft. "We struck a meeting of senior al-Qaida terrorists -- some of these were likely high-value individuals," Davis said.
"We're currently assessing that," adding that extensive surveillance took place before the strike.
"We do not currently assess there were any civilian casualties," he said.
The volunteer emergency medical service known as the White Helmets says it also documented the attack and that the mosque was hit. The group posted video showing the rescue operation with emergency workers digging people out from rubble. Activists also posted video that purportedly shows the northern part of the mosque damaged.
“Idlib has been a significant safe haven for al-Qaida in recent years,” said Thomas.
Local activists argue that the village of al-Jinah, southwest of Atareb in the western countryside of Aleppo, is not held by any al Qaida-linked groups.
Area known for jihadist activity
The area has been the scene of jihadist gatherings in the past. In November 2014, jihadist veterans known collectively as the Khorasan group tried to broker a merger between militant archrivals the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the then-official Syrian branch of al-Qaida, and a meeting was held at a farmhouse in nearby Atareb.
And there has been other recent jihadist activity in the area. Last month, militants kidnapped a local mayor in Atareb, prompting street protests against jihadists a few days later by locals.
Even so, Thursday’s airstrike has prompted denunciations from local activists, who argue there would be outrage in the U.S. if the airstrike that caused so many civilian deaths had been carried out by Russian warplanes.
The Syrian Observatory described the bombing as “a massacre.”
Analysts are critical of the airstrike. “Whether there was a high value target in the area or not, targeting even part of a mosque during prayer time with multiple munitions is just shockingly short-sighted,” argues Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute and author of the book “The Syrian Jihad.”
He added, “Who in their right mind could have thought this was a risk worth taking? Opposition Syrians are seething this morning and at the click of a button, America has gone from being perceived as being cold-hearted about Syrian suffering to being no different to the Assad regime. This really is a deeply dangerous development and couldn’t have come at a worse time. Acts like this do nothing more than to justify and empower extremist narratives, which bizarrely, are exactly what we’re meant to be combating.
Looser rules of engagement?
There are also concerns by rights groups that bombing so close to a mosque may indicate that the Pentagon has loosened the rules of engagement in Syria. That holds out the prospects of more civilians being killed in future U.S. airstrikes targeting al-Qaida-linked groups and the Islamic State terror group, they warn.
Earlier this week, there were U.S. media reports that the Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to give greater latitude to the military and CIA to target suspected terrorists in air and drone strikes, lowering the bar when it comes to the risks of civilian casualties. The possible change would include also giving the Pentagon and the CIA more autonomy in their targeting by allowing them to proceed without prior presidential authorization in Syria and other countries, according to U.S. officials.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to confirm earlier this week to VOA that a review is underway - or that there have been any changes made already. “As a matter of standing policy, we don't discuss rules of engagement for security reasons,” said Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway. “Likewise, we don't discuss plans under deliberation that have not been approved,” he added.
The airstrike on al-Jinah came a day after more than two dozen people were killed in suicide bombings in the main judicial building and on a restaurant in Syria's capital, Damascus. The blasts follow another double suicide bombing in Damascus last weekend. Syria’s state news agency SANA, reported there were also 102 injured in the courthouse attack and 28 wounded at the restaurant.
Al-Qaida's former affiliate, now known as Tahrir al-Sham. claimed responsibility for the attacks. Analysts have warned, though, that as al-Qaida and Islamic State are squeezed in Syria, they will respond with suicide attacks, much as IS has been doing in neighboring Iraq.
Call to speed up negotiations
In response to the Damascus bombings, the U.N.’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, urged all parties to speed up negotiations to end a war that has left an estimated half-a-million dead. “There is no way that we should be accepting the fact that the sixth anniversary becomes the seventh,” he said.
“It’s becoming one of the longest and most cruel wars of recent years,” he added.
To round out the anniversary week, political activists opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Russia of dropping white phosphorous or thermite-based munitions against the enemies of the Syrian government. They released video clips showing purportedly white smoke and fierce fires amid explosions in the village of Umm al-Karamil in the southern Aleppo countryside.
Still photographs supplied to London’s Independent newspaper appear to show the telltale white streaks of incendiary munitions in the air. Russian officials say Russian warplanes have never used weapons forbidden under international law. A United Nations protocol bans the use of air-dropped incendiary munitions in areas where civilians are known to be located.