On the night of November 5, U.S. fighter jets, bombers, and drones struck several targets in the Sarmada region of Idlib Province in northwest Syria, near the Turkish border. This is only the second time that the United States has struck this far west in Syria. The first round of airstrikes in this region took place during the first night of attacks in Syria on September 22 and—just like that time—the targets of the attack have proven to be both disputed and controversial.
The overwhelming majority of the airstrikes in Syria have so far been aimed at members of or facilities linked to the so-called Islamic State, the extremist al-Qaeda splinter faction that operates in both Syria and Iraq. But the Islamic State’s forces are located much further east, along the Euphrates and in places like Kobane, and the attacks in Syria’s northwest on September 22 and November 5 were aimed at another enemy.
The “Khorasan Group”
Identified by the Pentagon as the “Khorasan Group,” this collection of veteran jihadis has been the subject of considerable confusion. Much of the U.S. and international media have portrayed it as a jihadi organization of its own—but that was never true.
From the very beginning, the U.S. military and government described the group as a cell of senior al-Qaeda members who have been plotting attacks against the West, while operating out of Nusra Front facilities in Syria. The Nusra Front, of course, is the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria. What that means is that the Khorasan Group moniker is simply a roundabout way to describe a certain subfaction within the broader al-Qaeda movement, which seems to be at least partially integrated with and fully reliant on protection from al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the Nusra Front. Or in the words of today’s Pentagon statement:
Khorasan Group is a term used to refer to a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qaida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets, Centcom officials explained. The strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front's clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, they added, and did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole.
According to preliminary information, the attacks may have been successful—some reports indicate that a French veteran jihadi and bomb maker by the name of David Drugeon, identified as a member of the Khorasan Group network, was among those killed.
Narrow Counterterrorist Focus
As seen in its statement, the Pentagon goes out of its way to clarify that the strikes were not intended as an intervention in the battles now raging between the Nusra Front and the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, or SRF, a Saudi-backed group in Idlib that has also received some support and endorsement from the U.S. government.
The dramatic collapse of the SRF’s strongholds in Jabal al-Zawiya, including the hometown of its leader Jamal Maarouf, has called into question the future of U.S. strategy in supporting Syria’s non-jihadi rebels against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, while also seeking to strengthen their negotiating position in Syria’s opposition against President Bashar al-Assad. Some now fear that the Nusra Front could move against the rebel-run Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which is today controlled by other Islamist factions.
Doing so would certainly provoke internal conflicts among the rebels as well as an international response. But it would also bring in much-needed funds, increase al-Qaeda’s leverage over other opposition groups, and enable it to cut support to those rebels that have been groomed by the United States as an anti-jihadi force. To control or encircle Bab al-Hawa must certainly be tempting for the Nusra Front, even though it has so far made no move in that direction.
Although a fresh round of airstrikes on Nusra Front targets just next to Bab al-Hawa could easily be interpreted as a way to preempt such an offensive, the Pentagon explicitly says that was not the case. If the U.S. military is to be believed, yesterday’s strikes were all about counterterrorism.
Was Ahrar al-Sham Also Hit?
There’s a further twist to this story. Immediately after the attacks, leading members of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi movement within the so-called Islamic Front, an alliance of rebel groups fighting Assad’s government, began to protest on social media that one of their headquarters near Bab al-Hawa had been destroyed by a missile strike.
While Ahrar al-Sham can seem like a close cousin of the Nusra Front in ideological terms, and has certain proven connections to international jihadism, it has always reiterated that it is not part of al-Qaeda. The group has never publicly threatened attacks against the West and in fact often states that it is solely working to destroy the Assad regime and erect an Islamic government inside Syria—not abroad. Indeed, in the past months Ahrar al-Sham has appeared to try to moderate its image somewhat and seeks to broaden its contacts with U.S.-backed groups. This was presumably in response to a cutoff in funds from Qatar, reportedly after U.S. and Saudi pressure, and in order to escape a relationship with the Nusra Front that was becoming too close for comfort—especially after the Nusra Front began to take a more hardline ideological approach this summer.
On September 9, a mysterious explosion wiped out most of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership. The group’s future has hung in the balance since then. And now, a second mystery explosion has hit the group—but this time, definitely, from the air. As far as anyone knows, there are only two air forces operating in Syrian airspace: that of Assad, and that of the U.S.-led international coalition against the Islamic State. In this case, suspicions immediately centered on the latter.
Ahrar al-Sham Bites Its Lip
According to a statement just released by Ahrar al-Sham, “preliminary information points to the involvement of the international coalition in these strikes.” The group also angrily denounced the attacks as “something that would not benefit anyone but the criminal regime.”
Ahrar al-Sham added that the strike on its base near Bab al-Hawa may have been intended to draw the movement into the Nusra Front-SRF infighting, saying that it won’t fall for such cheap tricks. In fact, the rest of the statement is dedicated to proposing a sharia-based conflict resolution mechanism to solve the Nusra Front-SRF infighting. The group also vehemently denies recent claims by the Nusra Front’s leader that two Ahrar al-Sham brigades (as well as two groups from its Islamic Front ally Suqour al-Sham and the independent jihadi faction Jund al-Aqsa) were taking part in al-Qaeda’s campaign to eliminate the U.S.-supported SRF.
This, together with the curiously brief and tempered response to what was most likely a U.S. airstrike against Ahrar al-Sham members, suggests that the group is unwilling to enter into a conflict with the United States or its allies. And indeed, some members of Ahrar al-Sham appear to want to downplay the incident; there have been no calls for revenge. One leading official placed the airstrike in the context of dual pressures against Ahrar al-Sham, from the U.S.-led coalition on the one hand and from jihadis on the other hand. It can hardly be read as anything other than a discreet expression of concern over the Nusra Front’s growing aggressiveness in Idlib and an attempt to remain neutral in the face of growing rebel clashes and increased U.S. military involvement.
A Question of Motive
Why would the United States fire missiles into an Ahrar al-Sham headquarters in this situation, when it would seem to have every reason to avoid pushing other Islamist factions into the arms of al-Qaeda?
The most obvious explanation is that this could be a case of mistaken identities or flawed intelligence—the United States was aiming for al-Qaeda but hit Ahrar al-Sham. But it’s also possible that the attack struck a specific Ahrar al-Sham unit that was believed to host, hide, or support veteran al-Qaeda members like Drugeon and his associates, for whatever reason.
If the Pentagon’s statement is to be believed, the strikes were intended only against Khorasan Group targets, that is al-Qaeda’s external operations cell—not even against the wider Nusra Front. Unless there was a mistake, the United States believed that the destroyed Ahrar al-Sham building was in some way used by al-Qaeda members plotting against Western targets, with or without approval from the group’s senior leadership. If that was really the case, or if there were real grounds to suspect as much, perhaps that could help explain the muted response by Ahrar al-Sham?