Atme, Syria
Atme, Syria

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - U.S. military officials are assessing whether to open an investigation into a coalition airstrike earlier this week in northern Syria that a monitoring group and locals claim killed at least eight civilians including children, among them five sisters.

The airstrike on Tuesday on the northern Syrian village of Atme appeared to have been targeting a weapons depot belonging to the Jaish al-Sunna militia, which is part of a rebel alliance that includes al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, say local activists.

The U.S. has mounted several attacks on al-Nusra in the past, specifically targeting al-Qaida veterans.

Islamist rebel commanders who coordinate with al-Nusra suggested the coalition airstrike may have been a warning to them to discontinue an assault on the nearby Kurdish border town of Afrin in neighboring Aleppo province. Last week, al Nusra fighters and allies stormed a district of the town and engaged in fierce firefights with Kurdish defenders, who fear al-Nusra may soon launch suicide bombings on the town.

Confusion on village's name

At first U.S. officials denied having launched an airstrike on the village just north of Idlib where a refugee camp housing more than 20,000 refugees is also located. But later they confirmed the raid, saying there had been confusion over the spelling of the village’s name, which in English can also be rendered as “Atmeh,” “Atma,” or “Atima.”

Later, in a statement, U.S. Central Command said: “We are aware of the reports surrounding Atmeh and are looking into them. We take all reports of non-combatant casualties seriously and look into each one received or reported. We apply very rigorous standards in our targeting process to avoid or minimize civilian casualties in the first place—to include analysis of available intelligence to selection of the appropriate weapons to meet mission requirements with the goal to minimize the risk of collateral damage and, in particular, potential harm to non-combatants.”

At least 18 people were killed in the airstrike; ten were militiamen, claim activists. “Eight were civilians, including five children and two women,” said Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group that relies on political activists inside Syria for its information. Residential buildings near the target were also struck. “The strikes hit the Jaish al-Sunna weapons depot, which was also used to manufacture shells and rockets. There was a huge explosion after the strikes,” he said.

The five children reportedly killed in the attack were sisters aged between 4 and 10 years and activists posted their photographs online. Their mother survived the attack but was seriously injured.

Locals vow revenge

Local relief workers reported on social media Wednesday that four children may still be buried in rubble.  Hadi al-Abdullah, a Syrian journalist working on the ground, interviewed locals and posted his report on YouTube. Locals told him a total of six missiles impacted the weapons depot and nearby buildings. In one interview a man who says he is the grandfather of the sisters reported dead complains, “Are these girls terrorists? Are they carrying machine guns? May God take revenge!”

Syrian rebel commanders claimed Tuesday’s sortie was flown by U.S. warplanes that took off from the NATO base at the ?ncirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. Turkish authorities have only recently allowed U.S. fighters,  tasked with bombing missions inside Syria,  to fly from the base and the first detachment of F-16s arrived last Sunday.  

The Turkish foreign ministry denied the warplanes for the airstrike on Atme came from ?ncirlik.

The Jaysh al-Sunna militia is a small independent unit that was first raised in Homs. It has links with the Western and Gulf-backed Free Syrian Army. In March it also joined the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fatah), an insurgent alliance that includes al Nusra and hardline Islamist militias such as Ahrar al-Sham. The alliance has made significant advances in Idlib province, driving out Syrian government forces from strategic towns. In June the alliance reinforced mainly FSA militias north of Aleppo to stem an offensive by Islamic extremists.

Sharp local reaction

The airstrike has prompted a fierce reaction from Islamist militias and political activists and analysts warn it will likely add to the challenges for Washington and Ankara in shaping a rebel defense force to protect a coalition planned buffer zone in northern Syria.

Earlier this week al-Nusra said it would withdraw its forces from the proposed zone, easing the complexity for Washington, which refuses to work with the al-Qaida affiliate. Islamist allies of al-Nusra, including Ahrar al-Sham, announced their support for the Turkey-U.S. plans to create a safe zone, saying it would have “positive humanitarian repercussions.”

Political activists let their feelings be known sharply on Twitter about Tuesday’s airstrike. Malik al-Abdeh complained: “Instead of destroying Assad's barrel bomb factories U.S.-led Coalition instead hits a rebel munitions store in Atmeh killing civilians.”

According to analyst Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank, Jabhat al-Nusra sources claimed they had captured members of the U.S.-favored Division 30, a militia they have been attacking in recent weeks. The Division 30 fighters were hiding in the refugee camp at Atme but it was unclear if al Nusra’s operation was being conducted before the airstrike, at the same time or after in retaliation for the raid.

U.S. miliary investigating

The US is currently conducting investigations into two cases of civilian deaths caused allegedly by coalition airstrikes targeted on Islamic militants. So far Central Command has acknowledged blame for two civilian deaths. Earlier this month, a group of independent journalists issued a report claiming that U.S-led airstrikes targeting the Islamic State group likely killed at least 459 civilians over the past year. The Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian rights group, says it has been able to document 164 civilian casualties due to coalition airstrikes since September.

The two civilian deaths so far acknowledged as having been caused by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes came in November 2014 near the northern Syrian town of Harim, also in Idlib province. The strike was targeting a meeting of al-Qaida veterans, members of what the Pentagon has dubbed the Khorasan Group. U.S. officials say they regret civilian deaths and have canceled a large number of planned airstrikes because of fears of civilian casualties.

Earlier this month, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the Department of Defense takes "all allegations of civilian casualties seriously, and we apply very rigorous standards in our targeting process to avoid or to minimize civilian casualties in the first place."

"We take great care -- from analysis of available intelligence to selection of the appropriate weapon to meet mission requirements, -- in order to minimize the risk of collateral damage, particularly any potential harm to non-combatants," he added.