US airstrikes targeted a hardline Syrian rebel group that has been fighting Islamic State (IS) jihadists, activists reported, a move which could turn some of the Western-backed opposition against America and boost support for IS.
Aircraft hit a base belonging to the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham brigade in northwestern Syria close to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into Turkey early on Thursday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which collects intelligence from a network of sources on the ground. Other activists also confirmed the attack.
Two separate strikes also targeted al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib province, killing two children, SOHR said. Al-Nusra has also clashed with IS but has turned on other opposition groups recently.
US officials believe that David Drugeon, 24, a French explosive specialist was killed in one of the strikes, Fox News reported. Drugeon, a Muslim convert who joined a terrorist cell made up of al-Qaeda veterans that the US referred to as the Khorasan group, died when a predator drone hit the vehicle he was in according to "well-placed military sources".
Ahrar al-Sham is one of the most powerful rebel units in Syria and a member of the Islamic Front (IF) coalition of seven Islamist armed groups formed late last year. IF wishes to turn Syria into an Islamic state and is officially opposed to the Western-supported Syrian National Coalition, but has cooperated with more moderate rebel groups to battle IS and Syrian government forces.
The US began airstrikes in Syria on September 23 as part of its strategy to "degrade and destroy" IS, but also hit al-Nusra, which officials said was sheltering Khorasan. Syrian government forces have not been not targeted, however, despite Washington's insistence that it wishes to see President Bashar al-Assad removed from power.
Al-Nusra routed the US-backed Syria Revolutionaries' Front in Idlib last week, seizing weapons and supplies. It also captured territory from Hazzm movement, another rebel alliance which receives Western and Arab support.
America's anti-IS strategy includes an expansion of military support to moderate groups opposed to Assad. However, both al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have proven to be some of the most effective units taking on government troops. As a result, some opposition fighters complain that US airstrikes on Islamist rebel groups, and even IS, are benefiting Assad and effectively constitute an attack on the uprising itself.
As well as the risk of turning more Syrian fighters against the US, strikes on Islamist rebels may also encourage members to join more extreme groups, including IS. The US had been pressuring Ahrar al-Sham to moderate its stance, but a number of its fighters defected to al-Nusra after leader Hassan Abboud was killed along with his senior commanders in a suicide attack last month. A continuation of the American bombing campaign on groups other than IS could trigger more defections — and even peace between IS and other hardline factions, fighters say.
An IS militant currently outside Syria told VICE News that he thought US attacks would drive the al-Nusra leadership to join with IS. "They are our brothers, there is only not peace because of politics," he said, added that large numbers of al-Nusra fighters defected to IS after the airstrikes started.
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Video via YouTube/Mohamed Juwad