US captures IS official in Syria as fighting renews among allies

The US military said it captured a senior IS official in Syria on Saturday, as renewed fighting Monday between Kurdish-led forces and Arab tribes in Deir Ezzor raised new questions as to the open-ended nature of the US mission.

US troops captured a senior Islamic State (IS) official during a helicopter raid in northern Syria on Saturday, the latest in a steady drumbeat of such operations in the wake of the multinational campaign to eradicate the terror group.

American forces captured Abu Halil al-Fad’ani, alleged by US Central Command to be an “operational and facilitation official” for IS in Syria whom the United States “assessed to have relationships throughout the IS network in the region.” The military said no civilians were harmed in the raid.

"The capture of ISIS officials like al-Fad’ani increases our ability to locate, target and remove terrorists from the battlefield,” CENTCOM spokesperson Lt. Col. Troy Garlock said in a press release. “USCENTCOM remains committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS.” 

A spokesperson for CENTCOM did not reply by publication time to Al-Monitor’s inquiry as to the precise location of the operation. US forces control a truncated sliver of northeast Syria in support of Kurdish-led local fighters, while Syrian opposition factions backed by Turkey control the country’s northwest.

US special forces have occasionally launched helicopter-borne raids into opposition-held northwest Syria to capture or kill IS officials deemed to be high-value targets.

News of the latest raid comes as the US military’s mission in Syria faces the prospect of pressure due to renewed fighting between the US-backed Kurdish-led militias and members of local tribes in eastern Deir Ezzor province.

On Monday, fighters took control of the villages of Dhiban and al-Tayyanah in rural Arab-majority Deir Ezzor, according to local reports. 

In a statement, US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had encircled “two armed groups affiliated with the security apparatus of the Syrian regime,” which it said had “infiltrated Dhiban town under cover of random artillery shelling coming from al-Mayadeen,” a town controlled by Syrian government forces on the far side of the Euphrates.

The SDF claimed a number of members of the alleged armed groups were killed and injured before being evacuated back across the river to government-held areas. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said some of the fighters had crossed from government-held areas. Those claims could not be independently verified by Al-Monitor.

The SDF blamed pro-government forces for shelling in Dhiban, which it said injured a number of residents and damaged property. The Hajin branch of the Deir Ezzor Military Council, which falls under the authority of the SDF, imposed a curfew in response to the fighting on Monday.

Late last month, the SDF sought to tamp down spreading skirmishes in Dhiban and other areas after the Kurdish-led force arrested the head of the subordinate Deir Ezzor Military Council, Rashid Abu Khawla, on allegations of corruption, mismanaging security and conspiring with hostile parties.

Despite calls from prominent tribal officials for the US military to negotiate a new arrangement for their continued participation in the coalition, American military officials took a back seat to the State Department's role in the negotiations, Al-Monitor previously reported.

SDF chief Mazlum Abdi previously told Al-Monitor that his forces would investigate allegations of abuses against the local population. Mazlum also said his side would issue a general amnesty for those involved in the fighting.

The violence between the SDF and Arab fighters has renewed concerns that other parties to Syria's civil war could launch attacks on US positions in a bid to pressure them to leave the country. Key bases housing hundreds of US troops east of the Euphrates River in the oil-rich province lie several kilometers from potentially hostile pro-Bashar al-Assad forces.

Washington’s NATO ally Turkey joined Assad’s backers Russia and Iran for the first time last year to call on the United States to withdraw its contingent from Syria, which American officials insist will remain for the foreseeable future to keep pressure on the remnants of IS.

"We’re kind of at the last phase of the operation where we’re trying to set conditions now for normalizing relationships that will allow pressure to remain on ISIS," the top US Air Force commander for the Middle East told reporters in Abu Dhabi last week. 

Mazlum was quoted on Sunday by Al Majalla as saying his side had not seen "any signs of a solution with Damascus."

The SDF has publicly suggested it would agree to become a part of the Syrian armed forces in exchange for a degree of autonomy for the Kurdish-controlled region.

Assad has vowed to retake all Syrian territory but remains unable to do so with US and Turkish forces present.


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