US special forces launch counter-terrorism raid in Syria’s Atmeh town

AMMAN (Reuters): The US Special Operations forces successfully carried out a counter-terrorism mission in northwest Syria on Thursday, the Pentagon said, adding there were no US casualties but gave no further details.

Residents of the northwest Syrian town of Atmeh and rebels fighting the Syrian government earlier reported several civilian casualties in the two-hour operation, saying the raid was believed to have targeted a suspected al Qaeda-affiliated militant.

“US Special Operations forces under the control of US Central Command conducted a counter-terrorism mission this evening in northwest Syria. The mission was successful,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

“There were no US casualties. More information will be provided as it becomes available.”

Residents of Atmeh said the raid took place around midnight in a densely populated area near the border with Turkey, where tens of thousands of displaced Syrians live in makeshift camps or overcrowded housing.

There were no reports of any militants being killed, but residents said they heard heavy gunfire during the operation, indicating resistance to the raid.

One resident said several people were killed in the raid, while another said rescuers pulled out at least 12 bodies from the rubble of a multi-storey building, including children and women.

Charles Lister, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said he had spoken to residents who said the operation lasted more than two hours.

“Clearly they wanted whoever it was alive,” Lister said.

“This looks like the biggest of this type of operation” since the Baghdadi raid, he said.

Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in a US special operations raid in northwest Syria in 2019.

Residents and rebel sources said several helicopters landed near Atmeh in the province of Idlib, the last big enclave held by insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and explosions were heard near the home of a foreign militant.

The militant who was the suspected targeted was with his family at the time of the raid, said a rebel official who declined to be named.

Witnesses said the raid ended with aircraft believed to be choppers leaving the site, but unidentified reconnaissance planes were still hovering in the area.

The rebel official said security from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group hurried to the location after the raid.

The northwest of Syria — Idlib province and a belt of territory around it — is mostly held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the former Nusra Front, which was part of al Qaeda until 2016.

Several foreign militant figures who split from the group have set up the Huras al-Din (Guardians of Religion) group, designated as a foreign terrorist organisation, which has in recent years been the target of coalition strikes.

For years, the US military has launched mostly drones to kill top al-Qaeda operatives in northern Syria, where the militant group became active during Syria’s over decade-long civil war.

US-led coalition operations against remnants of ISIS sleeper cells are more frequent in northeast Syria held by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.