(Headline USA) When helicopters carrying some 50 U.S. commandos thumped onto the ground in Syria an hour after midnight, the raiders confronted a houseful of innocent civilians—including women and children—alongside a smattering of ISIS extremists.
The attack Wednesday on reported ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was an audacious raid in an extremist stronghold of northwest Syria, executed with the understanding that children might die if the building’s occupants did not get out when given the chance to leave.
Pictures of the rubble afterward revealed a wrecked bedroom with a wooden crib and a stuffed rabbit doll. On one damaged wall, the baby swing was still hanging.
Blood could be seen on the walls and floor in what remains of the structure.
First responders said 13 people died, six of them children.
Videos released by the Syrian opposition group Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, showed a paramedic rushing a little girl from the house into an ambulance. A photo of a girl circulated on social media later showing a girl who appeared to be about five with blood on her face.
The White House attributed the deaths of three of the children to a suicide-bomb vest detonated by al-Qurayshi, while the Pentagon spoke of two—both leaving unexplained, for now, how many might have been killed in a firefight that followed.
In the fog-of-war aftermath, however, there was no immediate accounting from the U.S. of how many children died in all, and how.
No U.S. commandos were wounded, military officials said.
The raid comes amid a backdrop of persistent policy failures by President Joe Biden, leaving his fellow Democrats “spooked” at their election-year prospects.
It is a frequently mocked trope in contemporary US politics that presidents with flagging approval will use military strikes to “wag the dog,” hoping to jolt their popularity by stirring up patriotic sentiment and simultaneously changing the media narrative to one more favorable.
For Biden, however, who once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, foreign policy has been a particularly weak spot, even eclipsing his dismal domestic agenda.
The resurgence of the terrorist group ISIS—once dismissed by former President Barack Obama as the “JV team” to al-Qaeda—falls squarely on the shoulders of the Biden administration after a catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal last summer gave the underground insurgency the breathing room it needed to re-organize.
An ISIS suicide bombing killed 13 American servicemembers and more than 60 Afghan civilians at the Kabul airport during the chaotic US retreat in August 2021.
A retaliatory drone strike killed a US-allied Afghan aid worker and nine other civilians, including seven of his children. The Pentagon ultimately concluded that nobody was directly responsible for the failed mission.
The military’s apparent efforts to cover up the massacre—claiming for nearly two weeks that the strike was a success until the New York Times reported otherwise—has further undermined the credibility of the newly “woke” Defense Department, which prioritized the political indoctrination of troops over combat readiness.
Nonetheless, Biden’s saber-rattling abroad—particularly in Ukraine, where he has issued ultimatums to Russian president Vladmir Putin over a troop buildup at the border—has left many alarmed that the US may soon enter another costly military conflict for which it is wholly unprepared.
Targeted strikes on Islamic terrorists may be a safer option from a geopolitical standpoint, but it remains to be seen whether Americans will rally around their cognitively unsteady commander-in-chief.
A CALCULATED RISK
Following Wednesday’s raid, Biden claimed the world was rid of a man he described as the driving force behind the “genocide of the Yazidi people in northwestern Iraq in 2014,” when slaughters wiped out villages, thousands of women and young girls were sold into slavery and rape was used as a weapon of war.
“Thanks to the bravery of our troops, this horrible terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said.
Anticipating that al-Qurayshi could well choose death by self-detonation if cornered by U.S. forces, U.S. officials commissioned an engineering study-from-afar of the three-story, cinder-block building to see if it would collapse in that event and kill everyone inside.
They concluded that enough of the building was likely to survive such a blast to spare those not near him.
The second floor of the Syrian house was occupied by a lower-ranking Islamic State leader and his family. The ground floor, partly a basement, housed a family unconnected to the Islamic State and unaware of al-Qurayshi’s presence or significance, U.S. officials said.
On Tuesday morning, Biden met Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the Oval Office and gave the go-ahead.
Wednesday evening in Washington, Biden was in the Situation Room, monitoring a live feed of the mission as it unfolded.
At the outset, the building’s occupants were told to leave.
“If you don’t leave, we have orders,” a man speaking with Iraqi dialect could be heard saying through a loudspeaker. “We will fire missiles toward the house. There are drones overhead.”
Ten people left the building, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby—a man and woman from the first floor and eight children in all from the first and second.
Not long after came the apparent suicide-vest explosion that collapsed much of the third story and blew bodies out of the house, al-Qurayshi’s among them.
Biden said U.S. forces chose a riskier commando raid instead of an attack from the air so as to minimize civilian casualties.
Yet the U.S. launched the operation knowing the IS leader might respond by killing innocent people around him as well as himself. McKenzie said the U.S. “as always” will look into whether innocent people were killed by its forces.
When the commandos safely departed, Biden uttered “God bless our troops,” according to a U.S. official who briefed the press on condition of anonymity.
Adapted from reporting by the Associated Press