The United States military has said it carried out an attack against “al-Qaeda leaders” in north west Syria.
The US Central Command (CENTCOM) said in a statement on Saturday its attack in rebel-held Idlib province targeted leaders that were “responsible for attacks threatening US citizens, partners, and innocent civilians.”
“The removal of the facility will further degrade [al-Qaeda’s] ability to conduct future attacks and destabilize the region,” the statement added, without mentioning what kind of weaponry was used.
A war monitor said “at least 40” fighters were killed in what it called a missile strike.
The attack “targeted a meeting held by the leaders of Hurras al-Deen, Ansar al-Tawhid and other allied groups inside a training camp,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith reporting from Hatay, near the Syrian-Turkish border, said that sources on the ground said the area targeted was “a training centre connected with al-Qaeda.”
“[The training centre] encouraged people from all ages, young boys to teenage men, to older men to come there for training, that’s why we’ve seen videos where at least there is clearly one injured child,” Smith said.
“This is an indication of the concern, not just that Turkey has and the Russians have, but also that the Americans have that in this last rebel held part of Syria there are these hardcore groups resisting,” he added.
On July 1 the US said it had carried out a strike on the al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen armed group in north west Syria, in its first such operation there in two years.
The group and its ally Ansar al-Tawhid both operate in the Idlib region and are members of a joint operation room that also includes al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Most of Idlib province and parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces are controlled by HTS.
Statement from U.S. Central Command on U.S. Forces strike against al-Qaida in Syria leadership in Idlib, Syria, Aug. 31, 2019.
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) August 31, 2019
Separately, Syrian government air raids on the Idlib region halted early on Saturday, after the government agreed to a Moscow-backed ceasefire following four months of deadly bombardment.
Russia-backed government forces have been pressing an offensive against the major opposition stronghold in Idlib since late April.
Syrian state news agency SANA on Saturday said the government agreed to the Idlib ceasefire deal, which Russia said aimed “to stabilise the situation” in the anti-government bastion.
But the army “reserves the right to respond to violations” by rebel groups, SANA added, citing a Syrian military source.
The Idlib region is home to some three million people, nearly half of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria.
The United Nations says the violence has also displaced more than 400,000 people.
The region is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a Turkish-Russian deal struck in September 2018 that was never fully implemented.
Turkey backs various rebel groups in north west Syria.
“Russia and the Syrian government may be willing to give Turkey another opportunity to implement the terms of its September 2018 bilateral agreement with Russia,” said Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group.
“Alternately, this ceasefire may just be an operational pause for Damascus and Moscow to consolidate their territorial gains and prepare for the next phase of their offensive,” he told AFP news agency.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces control around 60 percent of territory, has vowed to reclaim the rest of the country, including Idlib.
Saturday’s truce is the latest attempt to avert a full-blown offensive, which the UN has said would result in one of the worst humanitarian “nightmares” in Syria’s eight-year conflict.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.