Did Turkey gift a rising IS leader to US in June-16 raid?
Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim
The US-led International Coalition Forces to combat the Islamic State (IS) focused on targeting “jihadists and leaders” affiliated with organizations linked in one way or another to al-Qaeda in northwestern Syria. This was done through the launch of smart missiles via drones or warplanes accompanied by airdrops that it described as “special operations.”
These airdrops have had an impact both domestically and internationally. They have raised questions about the role of Syrian opposition factions in the region, their response or comment on these incidents, their coordination with those in charge of said airdrops, and the extent to which there may be clashes with Coalition forces or even with Turkish forces close to the sites of operations.
“Al-Wali,” a prisoner of the Coalition
At dawn on 16 June, the International Coalition Forces carried out an airdrop in the countryside of Jarablus, north of Aleppo, during which they arrested a prominent IS leader.
The Coalition forces announced that one of the senior IS leaders in Syria, an “experienced bomb maker and facilitator,” had been arrested.
Hours after the Coalition forces’ announcement, the US military revealed the identity of the “leader” as Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi, also known as “Saleem” and “Wali of Raqqa,” according to the Washington Post.
In a separate statement, Coalition forces added that al-Kurdi was responsible for coordinating “terrorist activities” throughout the region, directing “terrorists” on the manufacture of explosive devices (IEDs) and supporting the construction of facilities for the manufacture of said IEDs, and facilitating attacks on American and “partner” forces, a reference to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose influence is concentrated in northeastern Syria to the lines of contact that separates them from the Syrian National Army (SNA), which controls the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the cities of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad.
Apart from the lack of civilian and Coalition casualties, some details of the airdrop operation on an extremist’s house near the Jub al-Dam area (Qanaquy) south of the village of al-Haymar in the countryside of Jarablus were absent, as explained by a private source in the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army to Enab Baladi.
Military observatories operating in the area reported the same day that the forces involved in the operation had left from the International Coalition Forces’ Lafarge base south of Ain al-Arab.
Jusoor for Studies Center published a report on 16 June in which it stated that the information about the detainee (al-Kurdi) was inaccurate and that he had been resident in the area for more than three years and had worked as a fuel tanker driver, and that he had been moving between the areas of control of SDF and the SNA due to the nature of his work.
The center’s report also indicated that this information suggests that the activity of the presumed leader in IS was limited to the logistical aspect of making or transporting explosives, especially since the International Coalition Forces intensified their security operations and airdrops against IS in SDF-held areas last May. A number of persons accused of working with IS as financial and logistical facilitators, booby-trapping experts, and recruiting officials were arrested during these operations.
Private source in the National Army
Two Chinook troop transport aircraft and six black hawk helicopters were involved in the airdrop operation.
The house contained a family of three men who work in transporting fuel by tanker for the fuel company operating in the area, in addition to women and children.
Coalition forces arrested three persons (men), not just Hani Ahmed al-Kurdi (Wali of Raqqa).
The rest of the family was found handcuffed next to olive trees close to the house.
Qardash before that
Coalition forces rarely carry out airdrops in northwestern Syria. After this type of operation was halted for about three years, the Coalition forces twice reintroduced it during the last four months, the second being al-Kurdi’s arrest this month, while the first took place last February.
On 3 February, US helicopters carried out an airdrop in the town of Atma, north of Idlib, in conjunction with an extensive flight of warplanes and drones.
The landing forces then surrounded a house located between the towns of Atma, north of Idlib, and Deir Ballout, north of Afrin, on the border with Turkey, saying that the leader of IS, Abdullah Qardash, was in it.
According to locals’ testimonies at the time, US troops announced in “terrible” Arabic via loudspeakers its demand that the targets surrender themselves, with threats to destroy the house followed by a nearly two-hour clash between US troops and the group inside the house.
The operation resulted in the killing of Abdullah Qardash, alias “Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi,” as well as at least thirteen people, including six children and four women.
This operation was preceded by a Coalition forces airdrop in October 2019 in a “special operation” targeting the then leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the village of Barisha in northern Idlib.
Silence of the factions
The silence and delay in the opposition factions’ comment on the operations sparked controversy, especially in view of their security and military influence in the region, in addition to the proximity of the operations to the Turkish border.
The airdrops also received widespread media hype and many reactions, which were reflected in local testimonies and statements by the forces executing the operations. The targeting of leaders from prominent “jihadist” organizations is always accompanied by wide media coverage, whether through a statement by a high-ranking US officer or by a video speech by the US administration, which exploits events of this kind to promote them to the American public as “achievements,” after most of these operations have been described as “special and critical.”
The airdrops were carried out in areas under the control of the opposition factions, where fighter military factions abound, both in areas under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and factions in line with its policy in Idlib, the countryside of Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama, and in National Army-held areas where the arrest of “leader” Hani al-Kurdi was carried out.
There was no official civil or military comment on the airdrop operation, in which the Coalition forces arrested the “leader” al-Kurdi, either by the National Army or by its political umbrella, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). Meanwhile, the Sultan Murad Division of the National Army cordoned off the landing site in the countryside of Jarablus, north of Aleppo, and prevented entry to the area.
The silence of the National Army is not much different from the interaction of Tahrir al-Sham with the killing of the “leader” al-Qurashi in Atma; HTS was late to comment on the operation, while identifiers close to it had published a statement of condemnation and denunciation of the killing of civilians during the operation.
In its statement three days after the airdrop, HTS denied prior knowledge of the operation or of the residents of the area. There were also cynical reactions by the people and some factions away from HTS-held areas, as observed by Enab Baladi on Facebook, to what has been described as the “silence of HTS.”
The Syrian researcher specializing in religious movements, Professor Abd al-Rahman al-Haj, explained to Enab Baladi that the faction’s gain lies in its silence, as it does not disclose its role and instead invests it in its relationship with Turkey to enhance its role in the “liberated” areas. The disclosure of its role may lead to its targeting and obstruction of its activity against IS in the future.
According to Pr. al-Haj, HTS played the most important role on the ground in the success of the airdrop operations and the assassination of IS leaders in Idlib.
Gift to the US
The Turkish forces’ heavily deployed military points in the northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo and the location of al-Kurdi’s arrest operation near the Turkish border have helped prevent any attempt to abort or obstruct the airdrop operation.
Turkey has a key role to play, and the Syrian factions in all regions of the north are undoubtedly cooperating on this subject (against IS). This is confirmed by Pr. al-Haj, who believes that Turkey coordinates with the Coalition in regard to airdrops, which are closer to being “gifts to the United States administration” than being “strictly security operations.”
Barisha, where al-Baghdadi was killed, is less than five kilometers from the Turkish border, near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Atma, where al-Qurashi was killed, is also about three kilometers from the Turkish border.
The village of al-Haymar, where al-Kurdi was arrested, is only four kilometers away from the Turkish border.
Researcher al-Haj explained that Turkey can carry out these operations alone, pointing to its military presence on the ground and the factions dealing with it and its possession of the capabilities to carry out such operations. However, it is giving it to the Americans in exchange for political favors.
According to al-Haj, the fact that Coalition warplanes did not engage in any clashes is an indication that the location of the leader al-Kurdi does not represent a stronghold of the organization from which operations are managed in SDF-controlled areas, as much as it was a mere hideout.
In addition, the high-security coordination between Turkey and the Syrian opposition factions on the one hand and Turkey and the Coalition on the other played a key role in securing the landing operations and making them a success, says al-Haj.
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