Edlib News Network / AP

US airstrike hits non-ISIL Syrian rebel compound

Activists say US airstrikes hit a group not affiliated with ISIL; critics say this could aid Syrian President Assad

Activists said U.S. airstrikes in Syria on Thursday hit the compound of a powerful rebel group that is not affiliated with Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in an apparent widening of targets — a move that could further strain relations between Washington and the Western-backed Syrian opposition.

The Syrian rebels have complained that the aerial campaign against ISIL is indirectly aiding President Bashar al-Assad's forces, and have been infuriated by U.S. willingness to attack other armed groups that the rebels view as allies, even as Washington refrains from targeting the Syrian government.

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the U.S. airstrikes Thursday targeted an office and a vehicle used by the group Nusra Front in Idlib province in northwestern Syria, where the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group routed Western-backed Syrian rebels last week.

At least one strike hit a compound belonging to Ahrar al-Sham in the town of Babsalqa in the northwestern province of Idlib, according to local activist Ahmad Kaddour and the Observatory. Ahrar al-Sham is a rebel group that follows an extremely conservative interpretation of Islam.

One of its founders was a senior Al-Qaeda operative known as Abu Khaled al-Souri. The group is not affiliated with Al-Qaeda but has close relations with its Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.

Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven powerful conservative and ultraconservative rebel groups that merged in November last year. The Islamic Front wants to create an Islamic state in Syria governed by Shariah law and rejects the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, but cooperates with some of its fighters on the ground.

There was no immediate U.S. comment on the strikes.

Activists said the strike was among several that occurred early Thursday in towns along the Syrian border with Turkey.

Other strikes hit compounds of the Nusra Front in the border towns of Sarmada and Harem. The strike in Harem killed at least two children, said Kaddour and the Observatory.

The Nusra Front is Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, and was once seen as the strongest insurgent group in Syria but has been eclipsed this year by Islamic State, which has seized wide areas of northern and eastern Syria.

The U.S. targeted the Nusra Front in the first wave of airstrikes in Syria in late September, accusing it of harboring a militant cell that was plotting attacks against American and other Western interests.

Many Syrian rebels view the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham as important allies against both Assad and the Islamic State, and are likely to view U.S. strikes on the two groups as an attack on their nearly four-year-old uprising.

The United States insists it still supports Assad's removal from power but is not targeting government forces.

Wire services

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