How Baghdadi's Death Reveals Trump's Clever Syria Strategy

U.S. president outsmarts Putin -- leaves him with Syria headaches as U.S. withdraws.

According to conventional thinking, President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeast Syria opened the door to a resurgence of ISIS. “Make no mistake, President Trump ignores the national security threat posed by ISIS at our nation’s peril,” Senator Bob Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week. How foolish Senator Menendez and his fellow critics look now after President Trump announced on Sunday that a special operations raid, which he had approved and closely monitored, resulted in the cowardly death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” the president said in remarks from the White House, describing the operation in detail. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization in the World. The United States has been searching for Baghdadi for many years. Capturing or killing Baghdadi has been the top national security priority of my Administration. U.S. Special Operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid into Northwestern Syria to accomplish this mission.”

Al-Baghdadi was cornered in a tunnel of a well-fortified compound in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, a few miles from the Turkish border, where he was hiding. Following a firefight, Baghdadi detonated a suicide vest, killing himself along with three children the brutal jihadist leader had dragged with him into the tunnel.

“I got to watch much of it. No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi's fighters and companions were killed with him. He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” President Trump said. “The thug who tried so hard to intimidate others spent his last moments in utter fear, in total panic and dread, terrified of the American forces bearing down on him,” the president added. DNA tests were conducted, confirming the dead ISIS leader’s identity.

So much for the critics who claimed that President Trump’s troop withdrawal from the portion of the Syria-Turkey border where Syrian Kurds had been living under temporary U.S. protection was a gift to ISIS. The successful al-Baghdadi operation speaks for itself, coming just a few months after al-Baghdadi's so-called caliphate was eliminated. Moreover, the president made clear that this operation was not a one-off mission. “Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders, and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS! The reach of America is long,” President Trump declared. “Terrorists who oppress and murder innocent people should never sleep soundly, knowing that we will completely destroy them.”

The special forces managed to take “highly sensitive material and information from the raid,” the president said. The trove of information collected will hopefully expose ISIS networks, the identities of potential replacements for al-Baghdadi, and ISIS’s plans for future attacks.

Despite the Kurds’ disappointment with President Trump’s withdrawal decision and the resulting Turkish operation that pushed Kurds away from territory they had controlled on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, “Kurdish intelligence officials in both Syria and Iraq helped locate the target of the raid,” according to a New York Times report, citing a senior American official. The U.S.-Kurd alliance is obviously not irretrievably broken when common interests such as the destruction of ISIS are concerned.  

President Trump’s critics also complained that his troop withdrawal from northeast Syria was a gift to Russia.

“Russia is the clear winner of the latest developments,” declared Joost Hiltermann, the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group. “Russia as the hegemonic power in Syria, that is now the coming reality.”

Senator Menendez wondered “whether President Trump is acting directly at the behest of Russian and Turkish leaders.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is peeved that President Trump had not given her advance notice of the al-Baghdadi mission, insulted the president to his face about ten days ago when she accused him of helping Russian President Vladimir Putin by withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. "All roads with you lead to Putin," Pelosi said before storming out of a White House meeting. President Trump was right not to trust erratic Pelosi or her leak-prone Democrat colleagues like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff with advance notice of such a dangerous mission. It could have ended disastrously if they had allowed information about the raid to get out before our troops had returned safely.

As the al-Baghdadi mission demonstrated, reports of the demise of U.S. primacy in the region are premature. The United States remains perfectly capable of wielding its vast intelligence and military capabilities when it chooses to do so in support of U.S. national security objectives. In this case, President Trump had decided, based on highly reliable intelligence, that there was an opportunity to kill or capture ISIS’s leader, which was clearly in the vital interest of the United States. The fact that U.S. aircraft would be passing through airspace in Syria controlled by the Russians to reach the target would not be allowed to get in the way of the mission. President Trump said that the Russians had been given advance notice of the flights without being told, however, their purpose.

"We told the Russians we were going in because we were going over them," President Trump explained to reporters during the press conference that followed his announcement of the mission’s success. "And they were curious, but we said we're coming. We said look, one way or another we're coming." The president noted that the Russians would be happy with the mission because they “hate ISIS, too."

Although President Trump thanked Russia, along with Iraq, Syria, Turkey and the Kurds, for their cooperation, this was an all-American military operation from start to finish. To save face, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman tried to cast doubt on whether the operation had actually occurred – a notable case of sour grapes.

President Trump made clear that U.S. forces would remain in Syria as long as necessary to combat ISIS and to protect the oil fields in northern Syria from ISIS or Iranian seizure. Neither Russia nor the Syrian Assad regime will be getting their hands on the oil fields either, so long as the U.S. maintains its military presence there. What exactly then will Russia be gaining from the U.S. withdrawal in northeastern Syria, where the Syrian Kurds had been relying on U.S. protection from Turkey’s forces? Not as much as President Trump’s critics think, according to Zev Chafets, a prolific writer who was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine. In an article entitled “Trump Outsmarts Putin With Syria Retreat,” Mr. Chafets wrote that Russia will, by necessity, have to take on more responsibility for fighting ISIS and other jihadists as well as reconstructing Syria.

“Sooner or later, al-Qaeda, Islamic State or the next iteration of jihad will break loose in Syria," Mr. Chafets wrote. “When that happens, the Russians will be the new Satan on the block. Their diplomats in Damascus will come under attack, as will Russian troops. More troops will be sent to defend them. Putin’s much-prized Mediterranean naval installations will require reinforcement. And so on. Soon enough, jihad will inflame Russia’s large Muslim population. Moscow itself will become a terrorist target.”

Russia will also have other headaches. Having saved the Assad regime from near collapse and claiming that it is now the main sheriff in Syria, Russia will have the burden of trying to coax Assad towards building a durable post-war government that may include some opposition elements. Russia will also be obliged to help with Syria’s reconstruction in order to avoid a breakdown of any restored order. “As the big power in charge, Russia…will be expected to help its Syrian client rebuild the damage from the civil war,” Mr. Chafets noted. “Physical reconstruction alone is expected to cost $400-500 billion. This is a bill Trump had no intention of paying — and one more reason he was glad to hand northern Syria to Putin. Russia cannot afford a project of this magnitude.”

Although Mr. Chafets appears to minimize the importance of the northern Syria oil fields at least in the short term, they do have strategic importance in the longer term. So long as the U.S. controls the oil fields with the help of the Kurds, who may gain some benefit from them financially, the U.S. – not Russia - will control a vital source of revenue that could eventually be used to help pay for Syria’s reconstruction. This will become part of the economic leverage that will maintain America’s influence as the Syrian civil war winds down and a post-war Syria begins to take shape.

Russia will also have to manage the relationship it forged with the Iranian regime as the two countries fought on the same side to prop up Assad. Russia must do so while having developed a relationship with Israel for trade reasons as well as because of the significant number of Russians now living in Israel. Russia's dual relationships with two players in Syria who are arch enemies of each other puts Russia into a difficult position. As Mr. Chafets observed, Russia has to contend with “the ongoing Israel-Iran war, which is being fought largely in Syrian territory.” Russia has tried to remain neutral so far, and will have to figure out how to ensure that it does not get entangled into the Israeli-Iranian conflict to the point that it begins to undermine its larger goals in Syria and the Middle East as a whole.

Thus, while Russia can be expected to reap some benefits from President Trump’s decision to reduce U.S. military presence in Syria, Russia is not the clear winner and the United States is not the clear loser. Far from it. “Critics who see the U.S. withdrawal as an act of weakness that will hurt American prestige and influence in the Middle East are wrong,” Mr. Chafets concluded. “The Arab world understands realpolitik and will read Trump’s indifference to the fate of Syria as the self-serving behavior of the strong horse. For that is what the U.S. is. It has far more naval power, air dominance, strategic weaponry and intelligence assets than any other country in the region, including Russia.”

The successful American operation to take out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is living proof of continued U.S. dominance in the Middle East when it considers its core strategic security interests to be at stake. If Putin wants to inherit the Syrian blood-stained sandbox and the headaches that go with it, that should certainly not keep us up at night.

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