The United States military stated Monday that it had carried out a strike targeting radical groups in northwestern Syria, its first such operation there in two years.
"U.S. forces conducted a strike against Al-Qaida in Syria (AQ-S) leadership at a training facility," U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement.
"This operation targeted AQ-S operatives responsible for plotting external attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians," it added. The United States has carried out several strikes in northwestern Syria, but they appeared to have petered out since 2017. On Monday, CENTCOM pledged to continue targeting radical groups in Syria.
"Northwest Syria remains a safe haven where AQ-S leaders actively coordinate terrorist activities, to include planning attacks throughout the region and in the West," U.S. Central Command said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raid in Aleppo province killed six commanders and other militants from the Hurras al-Deen group.
The leaders included two Tunisians, two Algerians, an Egyptian and a Syrian, the Britain-based monitor said.
Hurras al-Deen released a statement on social media channels on Monday saying a "group of brotherly jihadists" were killed in an attack on a "religious center" and not a training facility.
Hurras al-Deen was established in February 2018 and has some 1,800 fighters, including non-Syrians, according to the Observatory. It maintains ties to Al-Qaida and fights alongside the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.
Idlib, the last opposition enclave in Syria, had a prewar population of 1.5 million. The number swelled to around 3 million with new refugee waves after it was designated a "de-escalation zone" under the Astana agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran in May 2017 that paved the way for a permanent political solution in Syria. The Turkish military set up 12 observation posts in Idlib's de-escalation zone after the ninth round of Astana-hosted peace talks. Although Turkey and Russia have agreed to stop acts of aggression and turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone, the Syrian regime has consistently violated the cease-fire, launching frequent attacks inside the de-escalation zone.
Following eight months of relative calm provided by the Sochi deal, the Bashar Assad regime intensified its attacks starting April 26, under the pretext of fighting HTS militants holed up in Idlib.
As a guarantor state for Damascus, Moscow is responsible for preventing attacks by the Assad regime and Iran-backed militia groups, which have repeatedly violated last year's Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia. Syria analyst Sam Heller said the United States had effectively been excluded from the airspace over Idlib since President Donald Trump came to power.
Regime ally Russia "has prevented the U.S. from launching the sort of targeted airstrikes it had carried out through the start of 2017," he said.
"It's not clear if this latest air strike signals that a new understanding has been reached, or if the US felt it especially urgent to bomb these militants in particular," Heller added.
Israeli strikes target near Damascus and Homs
On another front in Syria's complex eight-year civil war, Israeli air strikes killed 15 people including civilians late Sunday, the monitor said.
Late Sunday, Israeli air strikes near Damascus and in Homs province killed nine mostly foreign pro-regime fighters and six civilians, including three children, the Syrian Observatory said. It was not immediately clear if the civilians died in the strikes or in their aftermath, it added.
The strikes hit several Iranian positions near Damascus, also targeting a research center and a military airport west of the city of Homs where the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah and Iranians are deployed, the war monitor said. One of the pro-regime fighters killed was Syrian, while the rest were of other nationalities, Syrian Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said. State news agency SANA earlier said four civilians had been killed after its air defenses responded to an Israeli attack.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, targeting forces loyal to Bashar Assad regime and its allies Iran and Hezbollah.