US troops killed a prominent Daesh member in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border early Thursday morning. A spokesman for US Central Command (USCENTCOM) confirmed the incident to Newsweek, but Colonel Joe Buccino did not provide further details about an operation that has not yet been made official by the authorities.
Three AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships landed late at night in the village of Moluk Sarray, 16 kilometres from the town of Qamishli in Hasakah governorate. Once there, without opening fire, they asked the residents to stay in their houses with the lights off. The operation lasted until 4 a.m., according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
During that time, US forces detained an Iraqi national, a security detail and a family of two. They also shot a fifth person, as yet unidentified, after he resisted arrest. He is believed to be the senior Islamic State (IS) commander who had triggered the operation. No further details have emerged, although the events have been confirmed by the Syrian state broadcaster.
The mission took place in an area controlled by the government in Damascus, where Syrian and Russian troops operate. This is by no means a common occurrence. In fact, it was the first incursion by US forces into an area under the domination of militias sympathetic to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The last two US interventions on Syrian soil against Daesh targets in February and July, which took place in the rebel-held Idlib province, resulted in the deaths of their leaders, Abu Ibrahim al Hashemi al Qurash and Maher al Agal.
"The air operation targeted a key Islamic State leader present in Syrian government-controlled areas," said a security source quoted by Reuters, who described the mission as a "success". According to this version, the man killed was in charge of coordinating Daesh sleeper cells in the area. However, according to residents quoted by the agency, the locals "thought he was a shepherd". No one in Moluk Sarray knew his identity.
The US and Russian forces are separated by a buffer to avoid direct clashes. Both have fought the jihadist advance in the region, but have been on different sides in the Syrian civil war. While Washington closed ranks with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Moscow did the same with the dictator al-Assad and his allies.
It is unclear whether there has been any coordination between the parties in this operation, but it is unlikely given the current geopolitical context and the state of their bilateral relations. Recent statements by Major General Oleg Yegorov, deputy director of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Parties in Syria, denouncing the unauthorised deployment of drones in Syrian airspace indicate otherwise.
Daesh capitalises on the perpetual instability and the pressing division among the other actors in Syria to maintain an insurgency in the central and north-western part of the country. "ISIS may have lost its caliphate, but it is far from defeated," note International Crisis Group researchers in their latest report. The jihadist group achieves this, in part, through the configuration of autonomous cells operating under orders from leaders based in remote areas. Impossible to uproot.
Coordinator America: José Antonio Sierra