U.S. airstrikes target Syrian rebel groups
U.S. aircraft bombed al-Qaeda's Syrian branch as well as another hard-line rebel faction in northwestern Syria early on Thursday, activists said, in an apparent widening of targets of the American-led coalition against the Islamic State extremist group.
The series of airstrikes overnight targeted three different areas near the Turkish border, hitting a headquarters and a vehicle belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front as well as a compound of the deeply conservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel group. It marked only the second time the United States had expanded its aerial campaign against Islamic State militants to hit other extremists in Syria.
There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials, but the apparent strikes took place amid a Nusra Front offensive that has routed Western-backed rebel groups from their strongholds in Syria's Idlib province near the Turkish border. The timing suggests that Washington could be trying to curb the militant assault and destroy weapons supplies of hard-line rebels and al-Qaeda fighters.
But by striking groups whose primary focus is fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, the U.S. risks further enraging many Syrians in opposition-held areas who believe Washington is aiding Assad in his struggle to hold onto power in the country's 3½-year-old civil war. Purported civilian casualties have only compounded those frustrations, and activists said Thursday that at least two children were killed in the overnight strikes.
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"We are tired of people saying they are coming to help us, and then they kill us," said activist Asaad Kanjo, based in Idlib.
The latest strikes hit a Nusra Front compound in the village of Harem and a vehicle near the town of Sarmada, said two other Idlib-based activists, Abu Abdul-Qader and Ahmad Kaddour. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the strikes.
Nusra Front fighters seized Sarmada and a series of other communities throughout Idlib province earlier this month from a Western-backed and funded rebel group known as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The militants have since been massing in Sarmada, closing in on the strategic Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey without physically taking it over.
"Of course they (Americans) would be worried that Nusra could take Bab al-Hawa or seize arm stockpiles going in for other groups, if they are doing that," said Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment.
The Nusra Front is a fierce rival of the Islamic State group, despite their shared extremist ideology. The two factions have been locked in a bloody conflict since early this year, during which Islamic State militants routed Nusra fighters from eastern Syria as they consolidated their hold on a vast tract of territory spanning Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
The U.S. targeted the Nusra Front in the first wave of airstrikes in Syria in late September, accusing it of harbouring a militant cell plotting attacks against American and Western interests. But the Americans had not gone after the group since then, until Thursday.
The strikes overnight also marked the first time the U.S. has bombed the hard-line Ahrar al-Sham group. Activists said several missiles hit a compound belonging to the group in the village of Babiska in Idlib province.
Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative rebel groups that merged in November last year. The Islamic Front wants to create an Islamic state in Syria governed by Shariah law and rejects the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, but co-operates with some Western-backed rebel groups on the ground.