Pentagon says not involved in death of Syrian rebel leader

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The Pentagon on Friday said it played no role in the death of Abu Omar Saraqeb, the commander of Syria’s largest rebel coalition, who was killed in an air strike near Aleppo.

Saraqeb, the top military commander of the former al-Nusra Front, reportedly died when a strike hit a meeting of rebel leaders on Thursday.

The jihadist group, which rebranded itself Fateh al-Sham in July after splitting from al Qaeda, is the leading member of the Army of Conquest alliance, Syria’s most powerful rebel coalition.

“It was not a US strike,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said. “Whatever happened there, it was not something that the US military did.”

A US-led coalition is conducting daily strikes in northern Syria, but its focus is on the IS group and it has steered clear of the carnage unfolding in Aleppo, where Russian and Syrian government forces are battling rebels.

“We don’t have any reason to be in Aleppo, it’s not a place where ISIS is,” Davis said, using an acronym for the IS group.

A US defense official later told AFP that Russia was the “leading suspect” in the strike.

Blow to rebel coalition

Analysts say Saraqeb’s death is the biggest blow to the Army of Conquest alliance since its formation.

Saraqeb led a major offensive by the Army of Conquest in spring last year that saw it seize control of nearly all of the northwestern province of Idlib.

But the alliance has been less successful in and around Aleppo, where it was dealt a major blow by regime forces backed by Russia this week.

It remains unclear the extent to which Abu Omar’s death will have an impact on the fight for Aleppo and the broader rebel movement in Syria.

According to Syria expert Thomas Pierret, the Army of Conquest remains “the only group that could credibly claim that it can break the siege of Aleppo”.

“The consequences of this assassination will undoubtedly be more political than military, as jihadist groups are generally well-prepared to replenish their cadres,” he told AFP.

Aleppo has been ravaged by fighting since the rebels seized eastern districts in 2012, with the former commercial hub transformed into a bombed-out city.