WASHINGTON — The United States military has begun formally investigating an American airstrike in Syria that officials said targeted dozens of Qaeda operatives at a meeting place that activists and local residents maintain was part of a religious complex where 49 civilians were killed.
United States Central Command has begun two investigations: one to determine whether there is credible evidence that civilians were killed in the strike, and another, broader inquiry into the overall operation and whether the building hit was indeed part of a complex belonging to the Omar ibn al-Khatab mosque.
Defense officials had acknowledged that the building hit in the March 16 airstrike was near a mosque, but they called it an “Al Qaeda meeting site” in Al Jinah, in Aleppo Province. Military officials said intelligence had indicated that Al Qaeda used the partially constructed community meeting hall as a gathering site and as a place to educate and indoctrinate fighters.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 49 people had been killed in what the monitoring group described as a “massacre” of civilians who were participating in religious instruction. Residents have described the building as an assembly hall and dining area for worshipers who gathered for religious lessons, and have produced photographs taken at the site after the strike that show a black sign outside a still-standing adjoining structure that identifies it as part of the Omar ibn al-Khatab mosque.
Last week, the Pentagon released its own photograph that showed a blackened crater where a building once stood in the village. An adjoining structure appears to be largely intact, as do about a dozen vehicles on the street. A small mosque across the street appears to be unscathed.
“We take extraordinary measures to mitigate the loss of civilian life in our operations,” Eric Pahon, a Defense Department spokesman, said on Tuesday. He added that “we are aware of claims of civilian casualties.”
Col. John J. Thomas, the spokesman for Central Command, said that the credibility assessment investigation would look into the question of civilian casualties. The broader investigation, he said — called a 15-6 in military parlance — will seek to clarify the purpose of the building that was bombed, as well as whether it was used by people other than members of Al Qaeda. “We’re investigating because we would like to look into it and find out if we can learn anything,” he said.
Investigators will review the intelligence that led to the airstrike, as well as videos, photographs and other documentation. American military investigators will also try to talk to witnesses, although it is unclear whether they will be able to visit the site given the limited number of American personnel in Syria.
Capt. Jeff Davis, another spokesman for the Defense Department, told reporters this week that the military does not strike mosques. Qaeda members and other militants are believed to have long understood that the United States’ rules of engagement discourage attacks on mosques, schools and hospitals without extensive scrutiny from top-level officials. As a result, militants have often operated in these places, in the assumption that doing so affords them some protection.
But large mosques can consist of multiple buildings, used by civilians for wedding parties and religious endeavors.
President Trump has indicated that unlike President Barack Obama, who had his White House scrutinize many military operations, he will leave more operational decision-making to the Pentagon and to American commanders in the field.
That streamlined decision-making has been welcomed by many in the military, who often expressed frustration at what they saw as a slow decision-making process in Mr. Obama’s White House. But it has raised questions about whether Mr. Trump is exercising sufficient oversight.