U.S. airstrikes hit Islamist extremist groups in Syria

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.

According to activists and anti-regime news agencies, two strikes hit Sarmada. Six targets were struck in Harem, a town west of Idlib on the Turkish border, and one was hit at Babsalqa, a village near a major border crossing to Turkey, Bab al Hawa.

Also targeted were the villages of Khan Subbul and Kafr Dayyan in Idlib province and the village of Jamiat al Zahra’a, west of the city of Aleppo.

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.

Despite Nusra’s recent attacks on moderate rebels, there was little open support for Thursday’s airstrikes. A commander in the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, which lost its base to Nusra last weekend, called the strikes “shameful” and “a mistake.”

“Most of the victims are children and civilians. All the damage is done to private property,” the commander, Mahmoud al Ugal, told McClatchy.

Noting the sensitive nature of the strikes, the Central Command statement was careful to note that the airstrikes “were directed at the Khorasan Group, whose focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime or helping the Syrian people. These al Qaida operatives are taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests.”

Two senior defense officials, who spoke only anonymously because of the sensitive nature of the issue, told McClatchy that officials at the White House had added that language to the statement, as well as language denying that the airstrikes had been in response to Nusra’s attacks on the rebels. The White House said it would have no comment on what role, if any, it had had in the writing of the statement.

The role of Nusra in Syria has long been a bitter point of contention between the United States and the anti-Assad coalition. Assad opponents harshly criticized the U.S. when it declared Nusra a terrorist organization in December 2012. Rebels, including the Hazm Movement, repeated that criticism in September, after the initial airstrikes.

But for the past several days, rebel commanders have pleaded publicly for help with Nusra as it became clear that the al Qaida affiliate was in a position to rout the U.S.-sponsored rebels and cut their supply lines.

Another new development was the targeting of Ahrar al Sham, an Islamist force that, like Nusra, was allied with U.S.-backed rebels against the Assad regime for more than two years but that, like Nusra, has been trying to reposition itself after the rise of the most extreme Islamists of them all, the Islamic State.

Some U.S. officials have argued that Ahrar al Sham should be declared a terrorist organization, noting that one of its key leaders was a close associate of al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri. Some rebels also have alleged that al Qaida contributed money and weapons when Ahrar al Sham was organized in early 2012.

But the group has remained off the list of official terrorist organizations.

A still-unexplained explosion at an Ahrar al Sham base in northern Syria in September killed most of the group’s leadership and left the organization rudderless. Turkish officials have said recently that large numbers of Ahrar members recently have joined Nusra units.

Nusra, too, had shown increasing signs of disorganization earlier this summer after its onetime component, the Islamic State, conquered the city of Mosul, Iraq, and declared a caliphate across wide swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Nusra’s purpose in attacking moderate rebel groups remains unclear. Some analysts think the action may be intended to burnish Nusra’s anti-American credentials and allow it to establish a zone where it rules, following the playbook the Islamic State used last year to seize control of much of eastern and northern Syria.

In a video broadcast Tuesday, Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al Jolani, cast the battle against the U.S.-backed groups in the context of American intentions to wipe out the Islamic State and Nusra in the service of Israel.

He said the assault on the unit that reported to Maarouf, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front commander, had the support of Ahrar al Sham as well as two other Islamist groups, Sukhour al Sham and Jund al Aqsa, and that “ordinary people from the area” had backed what he portrayed as a public revolt against a “gang that had committed aggressive acts against the people.”

There’s little doubt that Nusra’s move has had a devastating effect on the moderate rebels.

Nusra had seized a sizable quantity of weapons in its assault on the U.S.-supplied groups last weekend, including apparently an unknown number of TOW anti-tank missiles, and at least 60 of Hazm’s 300 fighters in the group’s home village of Khan Subbul defected to Nusra.

Nusra captured more weapons Wednesday, when it overran the village of Kfar Ruma in Idlib province and captured Maarouf’s Maghawir al Islam Brigade, a front-line force that had been viewed as one of the best rebel fighting brigades. Seizing two tanks, an armored vehicle and ammunition, Nusra dismissed the brigade and sent its men home, activists said.

Maarouf’s force may have been the weakest link among the dozen or so groups receiving covert aid from the U.S. and other Western and Arab countries. Other groups, such as Hazm, stood aside when Nusra went after Maarouf.

Lesley Clark and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Washington.