U.S. aircraft struck al-Qaida-linked Islamist forces fighting U.S.-backed moderate rebels Thursday in northern Syria.
Activists said the strikes were the first American action since bombing began in Syria in September that helped the rebels, whose supply lines to Turkey are in danger of being cut by the Islamists. The U.S. Central Command denied that the airstrikes were in response to recent attacks by al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, on the secular rebel groups.
Instead, in a statement, Central Command said the attacks focused on what U.S. officials call the Khorasan Group, a unit of senior al-Qaida commanders who American officials claim were dispatched to Syria to plan attacks against U.S. and other Western targets.
Central Command acknowledged five strikes on Khorasan targets “in the vicinity of Sarmada,” a town near the Turkish border. “These strikes were not in response to the Nusra Front’s clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, and they did not target the Nusra Front as a whole,” its statement said.
Anti-regime activists gave a different account. They said warplanes bombed at least 12 targets in six locations used by the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist force allied with Nusra that also is thought to have ties to al-Qaida. Separately, Ahrar al-Sham confirmed in a statement that one of its bases had been hit.
The airstrikes followed Nusra’s assaults last weekend on two major U.S.-backed secular fighting groups. Both of those groups, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazm or the Hazm Movement, have received weapons under a covert program administered by the CIA.
Nusra’s campaign against the groups continued this week, with the dismantling of a fighting unit that had reported to Syrian Revolutionaries Front commander Jamal Maarouf. Nusra also set up checkpoints on roads leading to the Turkish border that could effectively close down the rebels’ main supply route.
Notably, one of the villages that the activists said was targeted Thursday, Khan Subbul, had been the Hazm Movement’s base until Nusra captured it over the weekend.
Two Nusra fighters were killed in Harem, along with at least two children, activists said. In Babsalqa, a well-known fighter with Ahrar al-Sham, Abu al Nasr, was killed at an Ahrar al-Sham guesthouse, the activists said.
Ahrar al-Sham said the strikes had destroyed a base near the Bab al Hawa crossing and had killed an unspecified number of women and children.
The raids on Sarmada destroyed a car driven by a Nusra commander, but it’s not clear whether he was in it. Activists said the raids caused considerable damage to residences and shops in Harem’s city center. Central Command said the raids there destroyed or severely damaged “several Khorasan Group vehicles and buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas, IED-making facilities and training facilities.”
In September, Syrian rebels harshly criticized the United States for including Nusra bases among the targets when it began airstrikes in Syria aimed at the Islamic State, the radical al-Qaida offshoot that now controls much of Syria and Iraq. Until recently, the rebels considered Nusra an ally in the fight to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, and they said the strikes against Nusra served only to strengthen the Assad government.