U.S. Special Operations forces conducted what the Pentagon called a “successful” counterterrorism mission in northwestern Syria early Thursday. However, the commandos’ risky attack against the alleged Qaeda leader came amid reports from the scene that a number of civilians, including children, may have been killed or injured.
American analysts monitoring reports on Syrian social media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that US helicopters put commandos in position shortly after midnight, besieging a house in Atmeh, the town of town near the border with Turkey, in Idlib province.
A long, tense stalemate ensued, with helicopter loudspeakers broadcasting warnings in Arabic to the women and children in the home to evacuate, according to social media accounts and eyewitnesses. After about two hours, a major battle broke out, with rocket-propelled grenades and other flames firing from the house and surrounding buildings toward the Americans.
During the combat, an American helicopter had a mechanical problem, was forced to land and was later destroyed by an American attack plane. Witnesses said at some point the US commandos and their remaining helicopters flew away.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday in Washington, John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, issued a terse statement: “U.S. Special Operations Forces are under the control of U.S. Command. The US Center conducted a counterterrorism mission this evening in northwestern Syria. The mission was successful. There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available. ”
Charles Lister, director of the Counterterrorism and Extremism Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said video from the scene on social media showed people dragging the bodies of at least nine men and women and children from the rubble of badly damaged houses. , who are monitoring aircraft tracking videos and websites.
The scale, scope and duration of the battle suggest that the target of the raid was likely a senior Qaeda figure, Mr. Lister said. The fact that the United States risked sending commandos, not just launching airstrikes, also showed that the focus of the raid was on a senior figure.
US officials declined to identify the target, declined to comment on whether it was a senior Qaeda leader in the region, or even the terrorist group’s top leader, Ayman al- Zawahri, who is believed to be in the rugged border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Indeed, the helicopter-born commando attack bears a striking resemblance to the October 2019 raid that culminated in the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. That raid came not far from Thursday’s raid.
Mr. Lister said that the Atmeh area has crowded concentration camps that Qaeda members use to hide among those displaced by the conflict.
Idlib province is home to several violent extremist Islamic groups, dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front, which is linked to Al Qaeda. Syrian military forces, supported by Iranian and Russian fire, targeted this group. Another prominent group is Hurras al-Din, an affiliate of Qaeda.
Hurras al-Din emerged in early 2018 after several factions seceded from the Nusra Front, which at least openly diverged from Al Qaeda’s overall leadership. Hurras al-Din is the successor to the Khorasan Group, a small but dangerous organization of hardline high-ranking Qaeda operatives that Zawahri sent to Syria to plot attacks on the West.
The province has been hit by US air strikes in recent months, but the speed of action here has not been equaled by US-led coalition strikes on remnants of Islamic State in the northeast. Syria.
In early December, an American MQ-9 Reaper drone carried out an attack against a senior Qaeda leader and planner in Idlib. However, initial assessment of the attack indicated that the drone’s missile hit both the Qaeda leader on a motorcycle and a Syrian family in a car near the motorcycle.
Qaeda leader killed; wounded Syrian family members.
The army’s Central Command has opened an investigation into the incident, the results of which have not yet been made public.
“We abhor the loss of innocent lives and take every measure we can to stop them,” Captain Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for Central Command, said at the time. “The possibility of civilian casualties has been self-reported to US Central Command. We are conducting a full investigation into the allegations and will release the results as appropriate.”
Two months earlier, in October, an MQ-9 carried out an air strike over northwestern Syria. military officials said killed a senior Qaeda leader, Abdul Hamid al-Matar.
And on September 20, a US air strike near Idlib killed a Qaeda leader, Salim Abu Ahmad, US military officials said.
Evan’s Hill contribution report.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/03/us/politics/us-raid-syria.html Reports of civilian casualties in US raids in Syria appear to target Qaeda leader