U.S. Special Operations forces dropped from helicopters in northeast Syria to arrest an Islamic State leader on Thursday in a rare operation inside Syrian government territory, according to a Syrian Kurdish security official.
A spokesman for the Pentagon’s Central Command, Col. Joe Buccino, said in a statement that “CENTCOM forces conducted a raid in northeast Syria targeting a senior ISIS official.” U.S. officials declined to identify the ISIS official or his role in the terrorist group, or say whether he was killed or captured.
But a U.S. military decision to send American commandos on a risky nighttime mission in Syrian-held territory would suggest the significance of the ISIS official, counterterrorism analysts said.
The Kurdish security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said airborne troops landed near a village outside of the city of Qamishli before dawn on Thursday.
Syrian state television said that “U.S. occupier forces” carried out an airdrop with the support of Syrian Kurdish forces and that one civilian was killed and others were kidnapped.
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Northeastern Syria’s independent North Press Agency said the raid took place in the countryside in Syrian regime territory near Qamishli. Control of the city is split between the Syrian government and U.S.-allied Kurdish Syrian opposition forces.
The North Press Agency quoted an unnamed witness as saying clashes between Syrian forces and gunmen suspected of ISIS ties killed a Syrian officer and injured several other security force members.
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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said U.S. forces raided a private home, killing a man living there and arresting family members. The group’s director, Rami Abdulrahman, said that following the airdrop, paramilitary fighters allied with the Syrian government opened fire at U.S. forces, who fired back, wounding several of the fighters.
Syrian television channel Syria24 said residents of the village were warned through loudspeakers to remain in their homes with the lights off. It said a man suspected of being an ISIS leader, known locally as Abu Hayal, had moved to an abandoned house near the village of Milouk Saraya several years ago.
Charles Lister, the director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programs, said the airborne assault was the first known U.S. counterterrorism operation in territory controlled by the Syrian government since 2008 and took place not far from a Russian military base. Russia is a Syrian government ally and has troops operating in the same areas as U.S. forces in Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.
It was unclear if the United States used a special hotline to alert the Russians before the nighttime raid. In previous U.S. operations in the country’s northwest, military officials have used the hotline to give Russians advance warning of an imminent American counterterrorism mission to avoid any accidental exchange between the two rival militaries.
American commandos have used similar tactics against ISIS in Syria. A risky predawn raid in northwest Syria in early February by Special Operations forces resulted in the death of the Islamic State’s overall leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.
The two-hour assault by helicopter-borne commandos came days after the end of the largest U.S. combat involvement with the Islamic State since the end of its caliphate. American forces backed its Kurdish-led partner in northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as they fought for more than a week to oust Islamic State fighters from a prison they had occupied in the city of Hasaka.