According to local reports, a US drone strike in northwest Syria’s Idlib province on Sunday killed two members of Huras al-Din, an Islamist militant group linked to al-Qaeda.
A US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson confirmed US responsibility for the rare strike. “US forces conducted a strike against al-Qaeda in Syria in Idlib, Syria, June 14, 2020,” Central Command spokesperson Navy Cmdr. Zachary Harrell told Al-Monitor via email. Harrell added, “AQ-S (al-Qaeda in Syria) continues to present a threat to America and our allies.”
He did not say which units were responsible for the operation or provide details of the people targeted. The US-led international military coalition against the Islamic State (IS) denied involvement.
Affiliates of another al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militia in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, said on social media that two Huras al-Din leaders had been killed in the strike, including a Jordanian and a Yemeni.
Video of the strike’s aftermath bore resemblance to previous US strikes in northwest Syria, where the United States does not have sustained ground forces.
In this and prior incidents, videos of a destroyed vehicle have emerged, shredded but not burned, suggesting a non-explosive missile such as the Hellfire R9X may have been used in the strikes.
The weapon features protruding blades instead of an explosive warhead and was developed to avoid accidentally killing bystanders in targeted strikes by some US military units and by the CIA. Video of the aftermath of Saturday’s strike showed a vehicle that appeared to have been hit by two non-explosive projectiles.
The United States killed a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden with such a projectile in northwest Syria in 2017.
Huras al-Din is a splinter faction of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Last year, CENTCOM announced it had conducted airstrikes on members of Huras al-Din and other groups, killing some 40 fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. CENTCOM at the time said the individuals were “responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.”
The group has also denounced the current Idlib cease-fire agreement between Turkey, which backs rebels in Syria’s final opposition bastion, and Russia, which backs the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Huras al-Din launched attacks on Turkish forces in Syria’s northwest earlier this year. Russia conditioned the cease-fire on Turkey ridding Idlib of extremist groups, though Ankara’s ability to do so remains in question. Washington supports the cease-fire and considers it essential to its goal of bringing the Assad regime to the negotiating table.
Despite tenuous relations between IS and Islamist groups in Idlib, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found to have been living in a house in territory controlled by Huras al-Din in northwest Syria. Baghdadi committed suicide when US Special Forces raided the compound in October 2019.
The US State Department last year offered a $5 million reward for information on Huras al-Din officials Abu Muhammad al-Shami, a Jordanian, and Abu Abdul al-Karim al-Masri, an Egyptian. The State Department said Masri “remains loyal to [al-Qaeda] and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.”