The U.S. military on Sunday launched deadly airstrikes against al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria, marking the first time in two years that American troops have targeted members affiliated with the international terrorist organization, which now controls more territory than any other jihadi group in the war-ravaged country.
Al-Qaeda jihadis made gains as the U.S.-led coalition pushed the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) out of all its territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Now, al-Qaeda-linked jihadis have established their own Islamic emirate in northern Syria, which mainly covers Syria’s Idlib province, but also parts of neighboring Aleppo and Hama.
In a statement by U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) on Monday, the American military revealed that the strike took place near the northern province of Aleppo, which sits next to Idlib, home to the last remaining rebel bastion in Syria.
“This operation targeted AQ-S [al-Qaeda in Syria] operatives responsible for plotting external attacks threatening US citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians,” CENTCOM — charged with American military activity in and around the Middle East — declared, according to various news outlets.
“With our allies and partners, we will continue to target [the Islamic State] and Al Qaeda to prevent both groups from using Syria as a safe haven,” the U.S. military added.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked group that uses networks on the ground to monitor the conflict, noted that the U.S. strike killed nine members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din group, an offshoot of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadi coalition, previously known as the al-Nusra Front (ANF).
“They are: two Algerians, two Tunisians, one of Egyptian nationality, and another Syrian commander, as well as three [other] fighters, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in [a] critical situation,” the Observatory reported Monday, referring to the fatalities.
Late last year, pro-Syrian opposition Turkey and dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ally Russia reached an agreement to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria’s Idlib province free of jihadis and their heavy weapons, but to no avail. Both countries have blamed one another for the failure.
Established in early 2018, Hurras al-Din was reportedly formed by HTS jihadis who did not want to break away from al-Qaeda.
The al-Nusra Front changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in 2016 after claiming to have broken ties with al-Qaeda, an allegation that various analysts, the United Nations, and the U.S. government have dismissed.
JFS is now spearheading the jihadi coalition in Syria known as HTS, which the U.S. considers the latest iteration of al-Qaeda in the war-devastated country.
BBC explained in May:
Several combat units and figures that remained loyal to al-Qaeda subsequently defected from HTS and later joined Hurras al-Din, which was set up in February 2018. Although HTS and Hurras al-Din are not enemies, they could be seen as rivals competing for territory, weapons, and recruits.
TRT World reported Monday, however, that Hurras al-Din “maintains ties to Al Qaeda and fights alongside the global terrorist network’s former Syria branch, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS]– which dominates most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighboring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.”
Echoing TRT, the Long War Journal revealed in February that HTS and Hurras al-Din had reached a cooperation agreement.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) treats HTS as just another version of the al-Qaeda.
Late last year, DOS reported:
In early 2017, ANF [al-Nusra Front] joined with four smaller Syrian factions and created “Hay’at Tahrir al‑Sham” (HTS) as a vehicle to advance its position in the Syrian insurgency and further its own goals as al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria. ANF continued to dominate and operate through HTS in pursuit of its objectives.
DOS revealed that HTS commanded 18,000 jihadis as of the end of 2017. Citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, TRT added on Monday that Hurras al-Din has about 1,800 terrorists under its control.
Fox News reported that the last time the United States targeted al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria was in 2017.
The news outlet noted:
The last known strike was launched in mid-March 2017 in northwest Syria’s Aleppo Province killing dozens of fighters, days before the U.S. military launched cruise missiles targeting an airfield in Syria linked to a chemical weapons attack the Trump administration blamed on Syria President Bashar al-Assad.
In August 2017, a top DOS official in charge of Syria policy warned of “grave consequences” if HTS were allowed to control Idlib province as it does now.