US re-brands mosques as ISIS bases to avoid criticism over Syrian casualties, analyst says

Damaged mosque in Al-Jina

© REUTERS / Ammar Abdullah
A mosque in al-Jina damaged by a US airstrike in March 2017.

For several months now, the US-led coalition in Syria has been deliberately targeting mosques - religious objects that have protected status under international law. The trick is to say that they are no longer actually 'mosques'.

There are rules on what types of targets the US military is not allowed to bomb to avoid direct civilian deaths and long-term harm from damage to civilian infrastructure. Mosques, of course, are on the list, along with schools, hospitals, embassies, and refugee camps.

Yet since October of last year, the US-led coalition had apparently changed its approach to hitting mosques in eastern Syria as its warplanes prop up Kurdish militias trying to take over what is left of territory held by Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).

The justification for attacking mosques is that they were taken over by jihadists who use them as command and control points. This is perhaps a credible explanation. Islamist groups have routinely used schools, hospitals, and other protected buildings as bases throughout the Syrian war.

But there is another possible explanation, Ammar Waqqaf, director of the UK-based Gnosos think tank, told RT. Declaring a mosque a legitimate target insulates the coalition from criticism should civilians be killed by the strike.
"Previously they would say 'we will launch an investigation' whenever a large toll of civilian lives was lost. Nowadays they seem to have a pre-set justification," he explained.

The coalition is credibly accused of killing quite a few civilians in Syria and Iraq, including near or in mosques. The incident in the town of Al-Jina in March 2017, where an operation targeting an Al-Qaeda meeting near a mosque resulted in 50 civilian deaths, is the most-publicized, but there were many others. The US self-investigates allegations of collateral damage, but it usually takes five to six months, with the results arriving long after the news cycle moves on.

Waqqaf said despite claims that the US does all it can to limit damage to civilians, the devastation left in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria - two former strongholds of IS captured by US allies aided by coalition strikes - speaks to the contrary.

"What we know for sure is that Americans showed disregard for human lives and infrastructure, like in Raqqa or in Mosul,"he said.

Perhaps the people on the ground, who are allies of the US, are not to be trusted in assigning targets. Or perhaps the US pilots are trigger-happy. We don't know. There is no real investigation no why Mosul and Raqqa sustained such heavy [damage and loss of life].
When the US started attacking supposed 'non-mosques' directly last year, it's not like there were no civilians hurt. The Airwars group, which gathers reports of airstrikes causing collateral damage in Syria and Iraq, says the attack on a mosque in the village of Al-Boubadran on October 18 killed between 10 and 60. The one the next day in another village, Al-Sousse, had a death toll of between 8 and 70.

Certainly, the figures are difficult to verify, considering who holds that territory. But the villages and towns that US warplanes now pound in the final push for glorious victory over IS are full of civilians. Some are family of IS fighters, others may be held as human shields, and some may not have received the memo that their mosques are terrorist bases about to be obliterated.

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