“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.
Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.
The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.
It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.
The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.
The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.
IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.
The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.
Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.
He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.
He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.
Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.
What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.
IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.
This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.
An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.
Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.
It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.
Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.
The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.
A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.
But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
The five-day ceasefire negotiated by US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ends today.
Despite the shaky ceasefire, the risk of economic sanctions from the US and worldwide condemnation, Turkey is likely to stay in Syria for a long time.
The anticipated clash between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is also unlikely to eventuate, for three three reasons:
Erdogan’s main aims require the army to stay in Syria for the long term
Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in northeastern Syria strangely overlap
The coordinating role of Russia in Syria prevents the need for Erdogan and Assad to clash in open warfare.
Even though Turkey has been building its forces on the border for some time, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (which Turkey considers a terrorist group) was caught by surprise. They were busy fighting Islamic State and not expecting the US to allow Turkish forces across the border. Battle-weary YPG forces were no match for the powerful Turkish army.
As a result, Kurdish commanders begged the Trump administration to intervene. The ceasefire deal was struck to allow YPG forces to withdraw beyond what Turkey calls a “safe zone”. Trump declared the ceasefire to be a validation of his erratic Syrian policy.
Turkey’s immediate objective of establishing a 32-kilometre deep and 444-kilometre wide safe zone across its border with Syria will likely be achieved.
Yet establishing this zone is just the precursor to Erdogan’s three primary objectives. Those are to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees in northeastern Syria, as a result helping to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish administration and, finally, to ensure his political survival by maintaining his alliance with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP).
The June 2019 political loss of the important city of Istanbul to the main Turkish opposition party, primarily due to Syrian refugee debates, has been an important trigger for Erdogan to act on his Syria plans.
These objectives require Turkey to remain in Syria at least until the end of the Syrian civil war. This would mean the status of northeastern Syria and its Kurdish population were clearly determined in line with Turkey’s goals. These outcomes could take many years to eventuate.
So, any withdrawal before the primary objectives are met will be seen as a defeat within Turkey. Erdogan wants to enter the 2023 presidential elections claiming victory in Syria.
With the US no longer a serious contender in Syrian politics, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the only leaders capable of stymieing Erdogan’s objectives.
Prior to Turkey’s military intervention, the relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Assad administration was one of mutual avoidance of conflict. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, they have never clashed militarily.
The expected outcome of this policy was that the Kurds would have an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and an important role in post-civil war negotiations. Assad had no choice but to agree to this in order to stay in power.
The Turkish intervention opens new possibilities for the Assad government. The speed of the alliance between the YPG and Assad indicates the Syrian government senses an opportunity.
The Kurdish-Assad alliance allows Assad’s forces and administration to enter areas they could not enter before. Assad wasted no time in wedging his forces in the safe zone by seizing the major Kurdish town of Kobani in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the Kurdish-Assad alliance, resettling Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish regions will weaken Kurdish claims to the region and suit Assad’s goal of a unified Syria that he totally controls.
There is another immediate benefit for Assad. Idlib is a strategic city in northwestern Syria and the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition to Assad. Resistance groups defeated elsewhere were allowed to gather in Idlib. Careful negotiations took place in the past few years to avoid an all-out bloodbath in Idlib.
Assad will almost certainly ask Turkey to abandon its patronage of Idlib and opposition forces l
ocated there. In return, Assad will allow a temporary Turkish presence in northern Syria.
So, although Kurdish forces signed a deal with Assad, it is highly unlikely this will evolve into active warfare between Turkey and Syria. Instead, the situation will be kept tense – by Assad forces remaining in Kobani – to allow Erdogan and Assad to get what they want.
This is where Russia and Putin come in. Russia is an ally of both the Turkish and Syrian governments. To save face, Erdogan is unlikely to sit in open negotiations with Assad. Negotiations will be done through Putin.
When Putin and Erdogan meet on October 22, the main negotiating points will be to prevent a war between Turkey and the Russian-armed Assad forces. Erdogan will ask the Russian and Assad governments to allow Turkey to stay in the zone it established. In return, Russia will request further concessions on Idlib and perhaps more arms deals similar to the S-400 missile deal.
A deal between Erdogan and Assad suits Russia because it serves the its main objectives in Syria – keep Assad in power to ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and weaken NATO by moving Turkey away from the alliance.
If the Kurds realise Assad has no intention of fighting Turkey, they may decide to take matters into their own hands and engage in guerrilla warfare with Turkish forces in northern Syria. While this may deliver a blow to Turkish forces, Erdogan will use it to back his claim they are terrorists.
Regardless of what happens, Turkey will stay in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter the cost to both countries.
The eventual winner in Syria is looking to be the Assad government, which is moving to control the entire country just as it did before the 2011 uprising.
Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.
This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.
The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.
The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.
Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.
Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.
Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.
The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.
It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.
It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.
Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.
A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.
Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.
If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.
Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.
This week’s strikes on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia represent the latest in a pattern of actions by the Islamic Republic of Iran to escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Unlike previous incidents, the impact of this attack has not just been felt locally. With half of Saudi oil output halted – around 6% of total world production – global fuel oil prices have spiked. The markets are spooked.
Direct culpability for the attack remains unclear. While Yemeni Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility, other sources and evidence have pointed to an Iraqi source, potentially the Hashd al-Shaabi militia.
Some sources inside the US government have also outright accused Iran itself. This seems unlikely, though, given Iran’s penchant for proxy activity and plausible deniability.
Regardless of who physically pressed the launch button, however, it is almost certain that Tehran was the primary enabler of the strike. The state has a long history of supplying proxy non-state actors with the equipment, intelligence and training necessary to execute such attacks.
Indeed, in the context of the past few months, the attack appears to be the latest in a series of efforts by Iran to escalate tensions and insecurity in the Persian Gulf to push back on the US “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign.
Since early this year, Iran has committed itself to a strategy of destabilisation in and around the Arabian Peninsula.
The reasons have been myriad, but primarily revolve around the fallout from the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement. This has left Iran diplomatically isolated, economically strained and feeling betrayed by the wider international community.
Seeing few good options, the Iranian leadership has decided to promote chaos and instability to inflict what pain it can on global energy markets. The hope is this will add urgency to the negotiations with world powers and force them to seek a political solution to the economic and security standoff that provides an acceptable exit for Iran.
According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Islamic Republic has been involved in nearly 100 incidents over the past few months targeting oil, transport and security infrastructure and equipment.
While Iran has been directly implicated in a few of these cases, the majority appear to have been undertaken by allied non-state actors in Iraq and Yemen.
If one considers Iran’s historical patronage of such organisations, this should come as no surprise. Since the revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic has actively cultivated relationships with such groups as a key part of its foreign policy, most famously with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Such close alliances have permitted Tehran to project its influence into areas it otherwise would have little access to. They also grant a degree of plausible deniability when it comes to radical actions like those witnessed this week.
This can make it diplomatically more difficult for affected countries to assign blame and, more importantly, react to such provocations.
In the case of the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, the Iranian leadership has staunchly rejected any responsibility, framing the attack as Houthi revenge against Saudi war crimes.
What was notable in these attacks was their relative bloodlessness and precision. They were primarily designed to threaten and inflict economic harm and uncertainty, rather than kill and maim.
This, combined with a general commitment to employing militant proxies, highlights the Iranian desire to create enough tension to achieve political outcomes, while avoiding crossing a threshold that would lead to dramatic military blowback from the US and its allies.
This is a fine line to walk at the best of times.
Tehran’s brinkmanship rests on an assumption that calibrated provocations will not elicit serious reprisals.
Iran’s security elites have concluded that the Trump administration has little stomach for serious foreign military adventurism. A quick examination of the recent historical record shows that while the current American leadership has demonstrated an unprecedented amount of security policy bark – particularly on Twitter – this has not coincided with a similar level of bite.
Trump’s initial threats of “fire and fury” towards North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2017 were quickly shown to be pure bluster.
Indeed, such bellicose posturing quickly gave way to unprecedented dialogue between the two countries. This culminated in an ongoing series of no-strings-attached summits in which the US president bizarrely prostrated himself before the Hermit Kingdom’s autocrat for little clear gain.
But, when push came to shove, punitive measures by the US proved little more than anaemic symbolism and posed no serious threat to the regime’s survival.
Just a few months ago, Trump also aborted several military strikes on Iranian military targets after the downing of a US drone. It was another indication Washington has little appetite for open conflict.
Internally, Trump has also clashed heavily with several of the hawks in his administration. In some cases, he has purged them when their views clashed too heavily with his own risk aversion.
The most notable recent example was the humiliating dismissal of his national security adviser, John Bolton, one of the 2003 Iraq war’s chief architects and a staunch advocate of regime change in Iran.
The Saudi incident this week represents an undeniable and significant escalation by Iran in its ongoing campaign of tension in the region. The attack has seriously raised the stakes and potential for a conflict between both regional and global players.
But looking at the Trump administration’s recent history, Iranian foreign policymakers are assuming their actions will not spark a dramatic escalation.
In theory, this is a reasonable conclusion, supported by evidence. But security dilemmas like this are characterised by an incredibly complex intersection of competing interests, understandings and short time frames. This often leads to tragic and unpredictable outcomes for those involved.
One has only to look at the ramifications of a previous US intervention against Iranian disruption in the gulf, Operation Praying Mantis in 1988, for evidence of the potential for a rapid escalation to large-scale military exchange.