Syria Says U.S. Raid on ISIS Was Illegal, Part of 'Hostile Agendas'

A Syrian official told Newsweek that Washington broke international law with the U.S. raid that President Joe Biden said led to the death of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

"The recent U.S. raid is another flagrant violation of Syria's sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity, as it was carried out on Syrian soil without coordination or approval of the Syrian government," Aliaa Ali, third secretary of the Syrian permanent mission to the United Nations, told Newsweek.

While Damascus and Washington both consider ISIS to be a terrorist organization and have actively targeted the group, Syria considers the U.S. forces to be occupiers because they do not conduct operations with the country's permission.

And with a U.S.-led coalition still conducting operations against the group after former President Donald Trump and the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces still conducting operations against remnants of ISIS three years after declaring victory against the group, she suggested the U.S. military was using the jihadis as pretext to pursue an ulterior motive.

"The claim of 'eliminating ISIS' for several years now, without being actually eliminated proves that the U.S. uses the pretext of 'combating terrorism' in order to achieve its hostile agendas against Syria," Ali said.

Alia also referenced reports, carried by both state-run and opposition-tied media outlets in the country as well as activists on the ground, that up to 13 people died, among them civilians.

"Such a raid which resulted in civilian casualties, including women and children, necessitates ensuring accountability and avoiding impunity," she said. "Ironically, the U.S. Department of Defense claimed in a statement that 'Special Forces carried out a successful mission in Idlib.'"

"Describing a mission that resulted in 13 civilian casualties, including women and children, as successful makes us wonder how many lives would have been lost if the mission failed," she added.

Shortly after Biden broke the news of the death of Qurayshi, also known as Hajji Abdullah, on the morning after the operation, a senior administration official confirmed widespread reports of civilian casualties but said they were caused by the ISIS leader detonating an explosive, much like his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, did when cornered by U.S. forces in Idlib in October 2019, a story Newsweek broke at the time.

This time, the blast was said to have struck an innocent family residing in the building he was hiding out in the village of Atmeh.

"Unfortunately, ISIS once again revealed its barbarity and, in a final act of cowardice and disregard for human life, Hajji Abdullah detonated a blast, a significant blast killing himself and several others, including his wife and children," the senior administration official said.

The explosion was reportedly strong enough to propel bodies from the structure, leaving gruesome scenes that were widely shared across social media.

"All casualties at the site were due to the acts of ISIS terrorists and inside the residence, including Hajji Abdullah, who set off his charge, destroying much of the third floor," the senior administration official added. "An associate of Hajji Abdullah, another ISIS terrorist and ISIS lieutenant, barricaded himself and members of his own family in the second floor. He and his wife engaged the assault force. They were killed in the course of the operation."

Echoing this official, Biden later said "he directed the Department of Defense to take every precaution possible to minimize civilian casualties."

Syria, US, raid, ISIS, leader, Idlib
Red tape is extended and objects are set on fire around the house in which ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi died during an overnight raid by U.S. special forces in Idlib on February 3, 2022. U.S. President Joe Biden said a global "terrorist threat" was removed when the ISIS leader blew himself up after U.S. special forces swooped on his Syrian hideout in an "incredibly challenging" nighttime helicopter raid. ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP/Getty Images

The Syria Civil Defense, a rescue group also known as the White Helmets that operates in rebel-held areas of the country, responded to the scene. Spokesperson Mohammad al-Shebli told Newsweek that personnel waited three hours before U.S. military helicopters left the area to address the dead and wounded.

"Our teams rescued an injured girl, all her family members were killed in the airdrop, and another person who was injured in the clash was approaching the landing site to see what was happening," Shebli said. "Our teams recovered the bodies of at least 13 people who were killed in shelling and clashes that took place after the landing operation, including 6 children and 4 women, and our teams handed over two bodies to the forensic medicine in Idlib city."

Shebli did not identify the victims nor provide attribution of who killed them.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitor with ties to Syria's exiled opposition, also closely followed the operation as it unfolded. In its latest report published Thursday, the monitor also counted 13 dead, including four women and three children, with three other bodies said to have been rendered unrecognizable by the carnage.

The observatory said at least one of the dead was a member of another militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which holds influence over much of Idlib. The report appeared to match with the account of a second senior U.S. administration official who told reporters that U.S. forces encountered hostile fire from the group, drawing retaliatory fire that killed at least two fighters.

Airwars, an independent watchdog also based in the U.K., released an assessment of the raid on Thursday as well. Based on photos, footage and other accounts of the clash, Airwars accounted for the potential deaths between nine and 13 people, including six children, four women and one man.

"The planes came around 1am. They started shouting at us. There was a first, second and third floor. They were saying we needed to get out of the house – men, women and children – and that we would be killed if not. They fired a missile/shell while we were inside, then they fired bullets and we were inside," one woman eyewitness quoted by the group said.

"I came out behind them but I didn't see them on the ground," she added. "They said put your hands on your head and get on the ground and take off your hijab. I was very scared. I couldn't tolerate it... They took the kids from me directly and they searched me and handcuffed my hands behind me."

The incident was classified by Airwars as "contested" due to the conflicting claims that have emerged.

Syria's civil war broke out in 2011 as a government crackdown on swelling protests devolved into armed clashes.

In the early stages of the conflict, the U.S. and both Western and regional partners offered support to the opposition, while Iran and allied militias backed the government. By 2015, the U.S began to back the largely Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and Russia intervened on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The two sides conducted parallel campaigns in which the pro-government alliance targeted various rebel and jihadi groups and a U.S.-led coalition assisted the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS. The two sides emerged as the most powerful factions in the country, with insurgents largely confined to stretches of northern Syria, especially Idlib, where Turkey today backs a number of remnant rebel forces who oppose both the government and Syrian Democratic Forces.

While the U.S. has occasionally conducted airstrikes in Idlib, the province has regularly been the target of Syrian and Russian warplanes and activists have accused the two allies of inflicting widespread civilian harm.

The U.S has also accused Assad of mass human rights abuses and has impose intensive sanctions against his government. Syria has regularly denied these claims and called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces other than those tied to its allies Russia and Iran, and the lifting of economic restrictions.

Bashar, Assad, portrait, Damascus, February, 2022
A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs outside the covered Hamidiyah bazaar in the old city of Syria's capital Damascus on February 1. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images