4 min read  | Idlib, Politics, Reports

Possible coalition airstrikes target former Al-Qaeda affiliate in northwest Syria


January 12, 2017

AMMAN: Up to 20 fighters with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham were killed in a series of reported airstrikes on Wednesday and Thursday that targeted cars and motorcycles belonging to the group across Idlib province, local sources told Syria Direct.

The three to four airstrikes—which multiple sources claim were fired by either an American or international coalition drone—appear to mark the latest escalation in the US-led alliance’s more focused recent efforts against Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra.

At the time of publication, the United States government had not addressed claims of possible responsibility for the attacks.   

The first airstrike, which reportedly took place around 1pm on Wednesday, struck a Jabhat Fatah a-Sham car as it drove along a road toward the northern Syrian city of Saraqeb in Idlib province. All the passengers inside were killed. Over the course of the next six hours, eyewitness sources and civil defense first responders claim that follow-up airstrikes targeted additional vehicles in the vicinity of the initial attack.

Ahmed al-Jaber, a citizen journalist in Saraqeb, was close to the scene of the initial strike where he says “a coalition aircraft” hit the first car.

 Victims of Wednesday airstrike outside of Saraqeb. Photo courtesy of the Idlib Media Center.

“A police car went to find out what happened; it was targeted by the aircraft,” al-Jaber added. An airstrike reportedly hit the vehicle, which carried a police officer and fighters of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, killing multiple passengers.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, another airstrike on a car killed four members of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham 35km northwest of Saraqeb, outside the Idlib town of Kafr Takharim, the Idlib Media Center reported. While the opposition media claimed that the early-morning strike originated from “a coalition warplane,” the Idlib Civil Defense reported on Thursday that the airstrike came from “an unidentified plane.”

Up to 20 Jabhat Fatah a-Sham fighters—including two high level leaders—as well as two civilians were reportedly killed by airstrikes carried out since Wednesday afternoon in Saraqeb and Kafr Tarakhim, opposition media reported.

Neither Moscow nor Damascus has made an official statement regarding the Wednesday and Thursday airstrikes across the two towns.

US-led coalition warplanes and drones increased their activity over the skies of Idlib province beginning last October after US President Barack Obama ordered the Pentagon to prioritize eliminating the leadership of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham in addition to that of the Islamic State, the Washington Post first reported.

Coalition airstrikes “dramatically increased” in the last two months, Ahmed a-Saloum, an Idlib-based monitor of warplane movements affiliated with the local civil defense, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“American drones only used to carry out airstrikes in the Idlib countryside on a very infrequent basis,” a-Saloum added. “That changed over the past two months…and I’d say 90 percent of its strikes target members of Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.”

A-Saloum says that he can discern between Russian, Syrian and American aircrafts by—among other things—their distinct frequencies.

Since October 2016, the United States Department of Defense has claimed responsibility for at least five airstrikes against “Al-Qaeda militants” in northern Syria, including a pair of “precision airstrikes” earlier this month which the Pentagon claims killed 20 people.

Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—formerly Jabhat a-Nusra—announced that it broke ties with Al-Qaeda in a video by the group’s leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani last July. The United States, however, still considers the rebranded opposition group a terrorist organization even though it has not outwardly declared war on the West.

The Pentagon has repeatedly stated that it “will continue to take action to deny any terrorist safe haven in Syria,” Defense Department spokesman Peter Cook said in a January 5 statement.

“Al-Qaeda remains committed to carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States and the West,” he added. “We will not allow Al-Qaeda to grow its capacity to attack the United States or our allies and friends around the world.”

Back in September, the Obama administration signaled its shifting focus towards combating Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, announcing that part of their recently brokered US-Russia ceasefire in Syria would include a provision for military coordination between Washington and Moscow against Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.

On September 10, John Kerry announced that if the cessation of hostilities held for seven days, the United States would begin “some sharing of information” to defeat Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, which he called “profoundly in the interest of the United States.” The ceasefire quickly collapsed, and Washington has made little public notice since regarding the nature of operational information sharing with Moscow.

Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, which leads the Idlib-based Victory Army rebel alliance, is one of the strongest rebel actors in the opposition-held north of Syria. The group largely controls Idlib province, the largest remaining stronghold of rebel territory in Syria.

President-elect Trump, to be sworn in on January 20, has long called for prioritizing the fight against the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham over regime change in Damascus. 

Over Idlib province, coalition drones are a near-daily presence, a-Saloum, the local warplane monitor, told Syria Direct.

“Day and night, the coalition’s drones are now roaming the skies of northern Syria.”

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