In late September, after weeks of stern presidential talk about degrading and destroying ISIS, the first night of American airstrikes in Syria came with an added surprise⎯the United States also targeted the Khorasan group.
Who? That's pretty much what everyone said at the time as the U.S. Central Command explained the group of "seasoned al-Qaeda veterans" were struck in order to disrupt the group's "imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests."
It was a strange subplot that faded almost as quickly as it emerged. But after several weeks of absence from the news, Khorasan has resurfaced. On Thursday, several news outlets reported that the United States had once again targeted the Khorasan group with airstrikes in northwest Syria.
The Department of Defense confirmed the attack, adding:
Though Centcom is still assessing the outcome of the attack, officials said, initial indications are that it had the intended results, striking terrorists and destroying or severely damaging several vehicles, as well as buildings assessed to be meeting and staging areas or bomb-making and training facilities.
Next, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, American airstrikes were also launched against Ahrar al Sham, another Islamist group in Syria. "One airstrike," CNN relayed, was said to have "hit the headquarters for Ahrar al Sham" in northwest Syria.
Adding to the intrigue, the group had never before been either the target of American airstrikes or listed as a terrorist group by the United States. And while the Department of Defense briefing did confirm the Khorasan strike, it mentioned nothing of Ahrar al Sham.
So what gives? Well, for one, the Defense Department's loose definition of what the Khorasan group actually is⎯"a network of Nusrah Front and al-Qaida core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets"⎯could mean that the Ahrar al Sham is being lumped in with Khorasan.
However, as The Washington Post notes, while the group coordinates with the Nusra Front, it "is not believed to have direct ties to al-Qaeda." More interestingly yet, the group is also said to be a rival of ISIS. CNN added that Ahrar members "are also seen by many Syrians as moderates who protect them." The move could also been seen as a boon for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Following reports that Ahrar al Sham had been struck, several foreign policy experts weighed in, wondering if it had been a mistake and labeling it an emblem of the incoherent American policy in Syria. Whether or not the strikes took place, U.S. strategy in Syria does appear to be evolving—in ways that are already proving controversial. Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that the State Department plans to cut all funds for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, a group that collects data about war crimes committed by the Assad regime in Syria.