U.S. special operations troops carried out a “successful” raid in Syria against leaders of Daesh (ISIS) in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.
The announcement came as Syrian President Bashar Assad said in remarks published that he was prepared “to negotiate everything” at planned talks later this month in Kazakhstan, seeking to cast himself as a peacemaker after his forces’ recapture of Aleppo last month.
However, the upcoming talks, brokered by Ankara and Moscow, are still in doubt as Syrian opposition groups have yet to confirm their participation.
The operation in Deir al-Zor was “focused on ISIL leadership” and was conducted by a U.S. special operations unit tasked with tracking down top extremist operatives, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said, using an English acronym for Daesh.
Davis said, however, that reports by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that 25 militants had died in the raid were “grossly exaggerated.”
He said the raids were carried out by the “Expeditionary Targeting Force,” an elite unit deployed to Iraq.
This kind of raid is aimed at eliminating extremists as well as intelligence-gathering to conduct further operations, Davis said.
According to the Observatory and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces, at least four helicopters, including Apache attack helicopters, were used in the operation.
A commander of the SDF said the attack targeted vehicles driven by senior Daesh fighters coming from their stronghold of Raqqa, killing several and capturing other. Davis denied that prisoners were taken, saying there was “no detention from this operation.”
A Syrian army official said military radars had detected the operation but could not identify the nationality of the aircraft.
Omar Abou Leila, who runs Deirezzor24, said four helicopters landed in the desert between the Daesh-held cities of Deir al-Zor and Raqqa Sunday. Commandos set up checkpoints and intercepted a vehicle carrying several Daesh militants, killing all of them and flying off with the bodies, he said.
“It’s an operation that apparently targeted an important figure,” Abou Leila told the Associated Press from Germany, where he is based. Deirezzor24 is one of several locally staffed underground groups reporting from Daesh-held territory.
Local witnesses said at least some of the commandos spoke Arabic. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.-led coalition.
Speaking to French reporters at his Damascus palace, Assad defended his troops’ deadly bombardment of eastern Aleppo, saying the alternative would have been to leave the city’s civilians to the mercy of “terrorists” – a term the government uses for all rebels.
Assad questioned the credibility of Syrian opposition groups backed by the West and Saudi Arabia, which make up the bulk of the armed and political opposition to his rule.
“There’s no limit to negotiations,” Assad said, in remarks carried by Syrian state media. “But who is going to be there from the other side, we don’t know yet. … The viability of the conference depends on that.”
Past Syrian peace talks have run aground on the question of Assad’s future and whether he is to continue as president, with the opposition insisting his departure is a precondition for any reforms.
Assad said the matter could only be resolved through a constitutional referendum.
“If they want to discuss this point, they need to discuss the constitution. You need a referendum for every [constitutional amendment]. This is one of the points that could be discussed in the meeting” in Kazakhstan, he said.
The talks are scheduled to begin in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Jan. 23. They follow a lengthy rapprochement between Russia, a key backer of Assad, and Turkey, a main sponsor of the opposition, that culminated in a cease-fire agreement that came into force on Dec. 30, but which has already started to erode. Russian officials have suggested the U.S. could be invited to the talks at a later date.
In other developments on the ground, a car bomb exploded Monday night in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, wounding several people, including the driver of the vehicle, state TV, the Observatory and a local official said.
Jwan Mohammed, a Kurdish official in Qamishli, said security forces detained the driver of the car, who lost his legs in the blast. He said the car blew up in a main square that is home to several security offices. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, but Daesh had carried out suicide attacks in Kurdish areas in the past.
The Observatory also reported that Daesh has blown up a natural gas plant that supplied one-third of Syria’s electricity, one month after getting its hands on the facility.
“In the past 48 hours, [Daesh] blew up the Hayyan gas plant in eastern Homs province, putting it totally out of order,” the report said.
A source at the Syrian Oil Ministry also confirmed the explosion to AFP.
The plant had already ceased to operate one month ago, after the advance of the extremists in the central region of Palmyra.
Daesh Sunday released a video entitled “Hayyan Gas Company explosion in the east of Homs province” in which a man is seen planting explosives before a wide-angle shot of a huge explosion engulfing the plant.
Jihad Yazigi of the economic news weekly the Syria Report said the gas from the plant was used to provide electricity for the provinces of Damascus, Hama and Homs, in central Syria.
“The plant represented a large industrial investment and is actually one of the most important … economic infrastructure [facilities] to have been destroyed since March 2011” when the war began, he said.