- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The Pentagon is scrambling to figure out just what happened with an airstrike in al-Jinah, Syria, that killed dozens on Thursday night. Videos have emerged online of a bombed building attached to a mosque there, but a U.S. military official says those images don’t correlate with surveillance images taken after the strike.
Most public images circulating Friday show a building attached to a small mosque, with reports of at least 40 dead. The official added that the number of casualties being reported at the mosque correlates roughly with U.S. assessments of the number of al Qaeda fighters they say they killed in the strike.
But U.S. Central Command says it has intelligence showing that the mosque was across a street from the building where the al Qaeda leaders were meeting. “There’s a small street and cars parked on both sides of the street, and the building is about a 50 ft. away from the mosque, which is still fully intact,” the official said.
The official added that the U.S. strike and videos of dazed and bloodied civilians might be from two separate strikes, and suggested that the Syrian government or Russian planes may have conducted the strike. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Friday that Moscow was certain the attack was carried out by the Americans.
“Of course, there should be a probe into what happened in al-Jinah in order to figure out what target was hit and who are the victims that the so-called witnesses are talking about. However, we don’t have any doubts that the U.S. airstrikes targeted terrorists,” Zakharova said.
The strike comes as the U.S.-led coalition has ramped up attacks in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, now that commanders on the ground have more control over the fight.
Aleppo and Idlib have been the site of numerous American air strikes on al Qaeda targets, as the group gains influence in the country with Islamic State increasingly squeezed. The group’s second-in-command, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, was killed in a strike last month, and Centcom said that a separate bombing raid on an al Qaeda camp in January killed more than 100 militants.
In periodic reports detailing the civilian casualties it has been able to confirm, Centcom has admitted to having killed at least 220 civilians in carrying out more than 18,900 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the air war began in 2014. But independent monitoring groups put the number at hundreds, and at times, thousands more.
In a statement, Federico Borello, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, called for a U.S. investigation, and urged more measures to reduce innocent casualties.
“Relying on local armed groups for targeting intelligence in populated areas requires the U.S. to take additional measures to vet information to reduce risk to civilians,” he said.
Photo credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images