Earlier this month, the US assassinated a leader of an al-Qaeda offshoot group in Syria’s Idlib Province, in the country’s northwest. The strike was carried out using a drone and a secretive missile that uses blades to shred the target to death. The missile, known as the Ninja Hellfire or the R9X, does not explode and is designed to limit civilian casualties.
The strike allegedly killed Sayyaf al-Tunsi, a Tunisian and a high ranking member of Hurras al-Din, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda. Hurras al-Din is an offshoot of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), previously the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria). HTS is the dominant militant group in Idlib. Hurras al-Din was founded in 2018 by hardline members of HTS and al-Nusra, and other Islamist militant groups in the region.
US Joint Special Operations Command, with help from the CIA, has been waging this covert war against Hurras al-Din for months. The US killed the former leader of the group with a Ninja Hellfire missile back in June.
Hurras al-Din regularly clashes with other al-Qaeda-linked groups on the ground, and it has gained some of these militants, like HTS, favorable coverage by Western media. Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Congress about these clashes at a hearing this week.
“As of late June, battlefield conflicts between Hurras al-Din and the Nusra Front continued to escalate prompting al-Qaeda to issue a public statement condemning the fighting,” Miller said.
While the US is waging a shadow war against Hurras al-Din, its support of Turkey’s campaign in Idlib empowers the other al-Qaeda-linked groups on the ground.
Turkey backs a rebel group in Idlib, known as the National Liberation Front (NLF). Although Turkey denies supporting HTS, the al-Qaeda-linked militants have fought alongside NLF in the past, and some reports indicate recent Turkish-HTS coordination.
After heavy fighting between Syria and Turkey in Idlib earlier this year, Russia brokered a ceasefire that has held relatively well. Although the Syrian government has been fighting HTS, direct fighting between Turkish and Syrian forces has been rare.
The US threw its support behind Turkey back in February, when the offensive began, and skirmishes between Ankara and Damascus broke out. In March, US Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey visited Idlib with Kelly Craft, the US representative to the UN. During the visit, Craft pledged $108 million in humanitarian aid for Idlib, and Jeffrey said the US was willing to give Turkey ammunition alongside the humanitarian assistance.
On the other side of Syria, in the northeast, the US maintains a small occupation force and backs the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The US just sent an additional 100 troops and six Bradley Fighting Vehicles to bolster its force of about 500 soldiers. The increased US military presence came after confrontations with Russian and Syrian soldiers.