US special forces carry out counterterrorism raid in northwest Syria

Pentagon says mission ‘successful,’ no casualties among troops; official reveals malfunctioning helicopter was blown up on the ground; monitor reports firefight at house in Idlib

Screen capture from video allegedly showing an attack by US special forces on a house in Atmeh, in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, February 2, 2022. (Twitter)
Screen capture from video allegedly showing an attack by US special forces on a house in Atmeh, in Syrias northwestern Idlib province, February 2, 2022. (Twitter)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US special operations forces conducted a large-scale counterterrorism raid in northwestern Syria overnight Thursday, in what the Pentagon said was a “successful mission.”

“The mission was successful,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a brief statement. “There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”

The raid was in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib. The Pentagon provided no details on who was the target of the raid, or if any enemies or civilians on the ground were killed or injured. Idlib is home to several top al-Qaeda operatives.

Residents and activists in the area described seeing a large ground assault, and US forces using loudspeakers asking women and children to leave the area.

There was at least one major explosion. A US official said that one of the helicopters in the raid suffered a mechanical problem and had to be blown up on the ground. The US official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the military operation.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said troops for the US-led coalition using helicopters landed in the area and attacked a house. It said the force clashed with fighters on the ground.

Taher al-Omar, an Idlib-based activist, also said that clashes between the fighters in the area broke out with the US force.

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 as the Islamic State group was appearing to try 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 US-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 said more than 120 of their fighters and prison workers died in the effort to thwart the IS plot. The prison houses at least 3,000 Islamic State group detainees.

The attempted prison break was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since IS was defeated and members scattered to havens in 2019. The US-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 IS 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 IS members.

“They (IS) 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 US-led coalition has targeted high-profile militants on several occasions in recent years, aiming to disrupt what US officials say is a secretive cell known as the Khorasan group that is planning external attacks. A US airstrike killed al-Qaida’s second in command, former bin Laden aide Abu al-Kheir al-Masri, in Syria earlier this year.

Residents and activists in the area described the overnight raid in Idlib as the biggest operation since the October 2019 killing of Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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