Washington — U.S. special operations forces conducted a large-scale counterterrorism raid in northwestern Syria overnight Thursday, in what the Pentagon said was a “successful mission.” Residents and activists are reporting multiple deaths – including civilians – from the raid.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement that, “There were no U.S. casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”
Several residents told The Associated Press they saw body parts scattered around a house in the village of Atmeh, near the border with Turkey. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals following the raid, which they say involved helicopters, explosions and machine-gun fire.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strike killed nine people, including two children and a woman.
Ahmad Rahhal, a citizen journalist who visited the site in Idlib province, reported seeing 12 bodies. Others were reportedly still under the rubble.
The raid was in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, which is home to several top al Qaeda operatives.
The Reuters news agency reported that the raid lasted two hours or more and a suspected al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist is thought to have been the target.
The Pentagon provided no details on who the raid targeted or whether anyone on the ground was killed or injured.
Residents and activists described the raid as the biggest operation since the October 2019 killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Charles Lister, senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, remarked to Reuters that the U.S. forces “clearly … wanted whoever it was alive.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops from the U.S.-led coalition using helicopters landed in the area and attacked a house. It said the forces clashed with fighters on the ground.
Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, also said clashes broke out between the fighters in the area and special ops forces.
The residents and activists in the area described seeing a large ground assault, with U.S. forces using loudspeakers asking women and children to leave the area.
There was at least one major explosion. A U.S. official said one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.
The military operation got attention on social media, with tweets from the region describing helicopters firing around a building near Atmeh. Flight-tracking data also suggested that multiple drones were circling the city of Sarmada and the village of Salwah, just north of there in Idlib province.
The clandestine operation came with ISIS apparently trying to stage a comeback after its effort to establish a caliphate failed in 2019, following several years of fighting in Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks and months, the group has launched a series of attacks in the region, including a 10-day assault late last month to seize a prison in northeastern Syria.
A U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force said Monday that the Gweiran prison, also known as al-Sinaa prison, is now fully under its control. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said more than 120 of their fighters and prison workers died in the effort to thwart the ISIS plot. The prison houses at least 3,000 ISIS detainees.
The attempted prison break was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since ISIS was defeated and members scattered to havens in 2019. The U.S.-led coalition carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the prison area to help the Kurdish forces.
At a news conference Monday, SDF commander Nowruz Ahmad said the prison assault was part of a broader plot that ISIS had been preparing for a long time, including attacks on other neighborhoods in Hassakeh, Shaddada and areas of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria and on the al-Hol camp in the south, which houses thousands of families of ISIS members.
“They (ISIS) wanted to launch a massive attack on the region, and once again to spread their terror and impose darkness on the people of the region and revive the terrorist organization once again,” Ahmad said.
The U.S.-led coalition has targeted high-profile militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what U.S. officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A U.S. airstrike killed al Qaeda’s second in command, former Osama bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria earlier this year.
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