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US special forces just killed a top ISIS leader in Syria and captured his wife

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. US Delta Force soldiers launched a raid into Syria on Friday night seeking to capture a top ISIS commander, according to the White House. This was only the second US military operation in Syria, after an effort last year to rescue US hostages, and according to the administration it was the first "direct action" ground raid there.
  2. The mission was to capture Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS leader allegedly in charge of the group's oil and gas operations, for information about ISIS operations and remaining US hostages.
  3. Sayyaf reportedly fought back and was killed, along with 11 other militants, during the firefight between ISIS and US special forces. His wife, allegedly also involved in ISIS terrorist activities, was captured and is being held in Iraq.
  4. US forces also found a Yazidi woman allegedly held as a slave by the Sayyafs, and are now attempting to return her to her family.

US raids in Syria are a major step

Crossing into Syria — which the US nearly bombed in 2013 — is a significant step. This White House has long said there would be "no American boots on the ground" fighting ISIS directly in Iraq or Syria. That phrase is already a bit misleading, as there are thousands of US trainers working with Iraqi soldiers. And it is generally taken that the phrase "boots on the ground" refers to regular ground forces that would clear and hold territory as part of frontline combat, rather than special forces raids.

The president has consistently ruled out such a ground presence, arguing that it would be costly and not necessarily helpful. Rather, a White House official told the Post that this was the first "direct action" raid in Syria, a military term that refers to "short-duration offensives designed to seize, capture, or destroy a target, or recover designated personnel or material." There had been one previous US raid in Syria — a failed attempt to recover hostages in July 2014 — during which American troops fired on and killed militants.

It remains to be seen whether such special forces operations will remain rare exceptions in a US strategy that emphasizes airstrikes and supporting local ground forces — the Iraqi army in Iraq, certain rebel groups in Syria — or if they will become more common. If this raid was indeed in significant part motivated by an effort to find US hostages, that is a relatively narrow and specific aim. But if it was more about finding and capturing a top ISIS commander, that is a mission that can sprawl.