A US air strike in Syria targeted Al Qaeda members, reportedly killing its spokesman, and the Islamic State group has been forced from a key town in the latest setbacks for the militants.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the US military conducted an air raid on a meeting of officials of Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front on Sunday in northeast Syria, targeting Abu Firas al-Suri and other leaders.
“We assess that Al Qaeda senior leader Abu Firas al-Suri was in that meeting and we are working to confirm his death,” Cook said yesterday.
He said Suri was a Syrian national and a “legacy” Al Qaeda member who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s.
He “worked with Osama bin Laden and other founding Al Qaeda members to train terrorists and conduct attacks globally,” Cook said, adding that Sunday’s strike killed several enemy fighters.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Suri, his son and at least 20 militants of Al Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa and other fighters from Uzbekistan were killed in strikes on positions in Idlib province.
Seven were high-ranking militants, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a US think-tank, said Suri was a top militant official.
Suri “was a very senior member of Al Nusra, but organisations like Al Nusra aren’t debilitated because they lose a single senior leader”, he said.
“Their organisational structures are well prepared for targeted assassinations, which are usual business for them.”
Suri, whose real name was Radwan Nammous, fought against Soviet forces in Afghanistan where he met Bin Laden and the founding father of “global jihad”, Abdullah Azzam, before returning to Syria in 2011.
A temporary ceasefire between government forces and rebels has largely held since February 27, but it does not cover Al Nusra and IS.
The break has allowed Russia and the US-led coalition that has been bombing IS in Syria to concentrate on their fight against the militants.
Al Nusra has generally kept a low profile since the truce brokered by the US and Russia came into force.
But on Friday, the Al Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels pushed regime loyalists out of Al-Eis, a strategic town in the northern province of Aleppo, killing 12 members of the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah movement.
“It was Al Nusra’s biggest operation since the ceasefire began,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
IS has also lost a string of high-ranking members in recent weeks, mainly to strikes by the US-led coalition that launched an aerial campaign against the militants in Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Last Wednesday, a drone strike near IS’s de facto capital Raqa killed Tunisian commander Abu al-Haija.
On Sunday, the army seized the town of Al-Qaryatain, one of the last IS strongholds in central Syria, a week after the Russian-backed army scored a major victory in the ancient city of Palmyra, also located in the vast province of Homs.
The recapture of Al-Qaryatain allows the army to secure its grip over Palmyra, where militants destroyed ancient temples during their 10-month rule and executed 280 people.
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