Islamic State (IS) group chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was found and killed over the weekend in northern Syria just a few miles from the Turkish border in a US raid that evaded the Turkey’s Incirlik base, in a sign of the increasing distrust between US and Turkish militaries.
The compound where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was targeted early Sunday is located near the village of Barisha in northwestern Syria barely three miles from the Turkish border in Idlib, a province that has come to be known as “the last refuge of Syrian rebels” resisting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
But it was an odd last refuge for the self-styled “caliph” of the IS group – one that underscores the conflicting interests of the players, and their backers, in the Syrian war. While the international community has welcomed Baghdadi’s killing, his location and the manner in which the US raid was planned and executed highlights the security threats that still dog the region and beyond.
Barisha village lies in a zone marked “rebel control” on Syrian battle maps, and is where an estimated three million people, mostly civilians, coexist with a witch’s brew of jihadist groups, including al Qaeda’s Syrian branch and a number of allied or warring factions. Most of them are mortal rivals of the IS group.
Turkey has about a dozen military observation posts in Idlib that monitor the rebel area, where the Turkish-backed rebel Free Syrian Army – now confusingly called the National Syrian Army (NSA) – also operate.
Ankara has emerged as a guarantor of sorts for the Idlib pocket, after Turkey negotiated a ceasefire with Russia and Iran in May under the Astana process. The deal saw the establishment of a buffer zone, which Turkey wanted, to protect Idlib residents from Assad’s offensive.
In return, Turkey was required to remove all jihadist groups, including al Qaeda affiliates and breakaway groups, from the province.
Baghdadi’s presence in Idlib put the spotlight on Turkey’s failure to implement its commitment, which was quickly noted by regional experts a day after the raid.
The starting point of the US operation also raised eyebrows in defence and counterterror circles, underscoring tensions between Turkey and its fellow NATO members.
When US attack helicopters took off on their mission around midnight in the region on Sunday, they did not fly out of Incirlik, NATO’s second-largest air base, located in southern Turkey just across the Mediterranean Sea from northwestern Syria.
Instead the helicopters – packed with Delta Force commandos and kit – took off from the Al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province, taking an east-west flight path that spanned the breath of Syria over dangerous enemy-held terrain.
In its editorial the morning after President Donald Trump’s announcement, the Washington Post cut to the heart of the security concerns plaguing allies in the international coalition against the IS group. “That U.S. forces neither used Turkey’s nearby Incirlik air base as a staging ground nor informed Ankara about the target of the operation in advance testifies to the unreliability of an ally Mr. Trump says he is counting on to prevent the Islamic State’s resurgence,” noted the Post.
“What we know is that the Turkish government has been very upset with how closely the US government continues to cooperate with the [Kurdish-led] SDF. For operational reasons, the US found it best to leave from Erbil, in an atmosphere of more coordinated security for the US that would make it more unlikely for ISIS [IS group] to get prior warning of the raid. If you read between the lines of what US officials are saying, it’s clear we don’t trust Turkey enough to cooperate closely,” said Nicholas Heras, from the Washington DC-based Center for a New American Security, who has advised US counterterrorism officials on Syria, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Baghdadi’s underwear ‘stolen’ for DNA tests
In sharp contrast, recent news reports have highlighted the critical role Turkey’s arch foe, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), played in Sunday’s complex raid.
In a detailed Twitter posting Tuesday, Polat Can, a senior SDF adviser, revealed that one of the group’s sources managed to steal Baghdadi’s used underwear and later a sample of his blood, which were passed on to US intelligence officials. The positive DNA matches kicked the operation into high gear “more than a month ago”, said Can.
But the October 9 Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria, “prompted us to stop our special operations, including the pursuit of Al-Baghdadi. The Turkish invasion caused a delay in the operation”, Can added.
Meanwhile, the US on Tuesday confirmed an SDF announcement -- issued hours after Trump announced Baghdadi’s death -- that a joint raid between Kurdish-led and US forces in Jarablus in Syria’s Aleppo province killed another high-level IS-group figure.
Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir was considered a possible replacement to head the IS group following Baghdadi’s death, a thwarted succession Trump alluded to when he tweeted, “Just confirmed that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s number one replacement has been terminated by American troops.”
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, SDF General Commander Mazloum Abdi told reporters the joint US-SDF raid on Muhajir was "a continuation of the previous operation" in which Baghdadi was killed.
Trump’s sudden decision earlier this month to withdraw US troops coordinating with SDF troops in Syria drew sharp criticisms over his betrayal of the Kurds, Washington’s most committed military allies in the fight against the IS group.
The US president has since attempted to backpedal by announcing the redeployment of US troops from the border zone invaded by Turkey to an area further east to protect oil wells still under Kurdish control. Since the oil wells have been defunct and destroyed by fighting in the Syrian war, the announcement was widely viewed as a bid to maintain US special forces in the volatile area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to move an estimated three million mostly Sunni Arab Syrian refugees in Turkey into a Syrian border “buffer zone” inhabited by Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and a number of minority groups.
Parallels with Pakistan
The distrust, Heras noted, bears some similarities to America’s fraught relationship with Pakistan during the 2011 raid on a compound not far from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistan, a Cold War-era US ally and partner in the war on terror, was not informed of the operation until after the al Qaeda founder was killed and the US team had returned to an air base in Afghanistan.
“I believe that in the days to come, we will find a lot of parallels with Pakistan,” said Heras. “We will see more reports emerge of elements within the Turkish state seeing ISIS as a useful tool just as elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus saw al Qaeda and the Taliban as useful tools.”
Like Pakistan, Turkey is extremely sensitive to allegations of ties between its security-intelligence apparatus and Islamist militants. In 2015, Turkey arrested a prominent editor, Can Dandar, for his newspaper’s investigative report on a convoy of trucks, packed with weapons, bound for Syria.
But Turkey’s use of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a primarily Sunni Arab fighting force that includes a number of Islamist groups, has increased Western fears that Ankara’s aim of rooting out the SDF from the border zones will unleash a brutal ethnic conflict in Syria’s Kurdish areas.
Qaeda-linked commander who housed Baghdadi
While FSA groups have battled with al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Hayat Tahrir al-Shams (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), Baghdadi’s presence in a rebel-controlled zone underscores the fluid, unlikely alliances between Islamist militant groups.
Baghdadi was found in the house of Abu Mohammed Salama, a commander of Hurras al-Din, a jihadist group that broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Shams after the latter group split from al Qaeda.
Hurras al-Din is considered loyal to al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri. But although al Qaeda and the IS group are rivals, Hurras al-Din members are believed to have helped some senior IS group members flee from their last pockets of control in eastern Syria to Idlib in the west earlier this year.
Turkey, focused on battling Kurdish fighters in the area, has shown little enthusiasm for cracking down on hardline jihadist groups operating in northern Syria.
Despite the growing differences between Turkey and its fellow NATO members, the military alliance is likely to publicly paper over its differences during a December 4 summit in London to celebrate 70 years of its founding in Washington.
Ever since Ankara joined NATO in 1952, the alliance has stressed the importance of Turkey’s Incirlik base, which was a strategic bridge to the Black and Mediterranean Seas during the Cold War. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea has underscored the continuing importance of the bridge-point.
But the Baghdadi raid has exposed NATO’s de facto sidelining of Turkey. For its part, Ankara has been building military ties with Moscow and Beijing.
“The US has established other bases that can take the load off and diminish Incirlik’s importance,” noted Heras. “There are bases in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Erbil, a Forward Operating Base [FOB] in Greece and other places in the region that reduces the importance of Incirlik.”
After more than 60 years, the military marriage between Turkey and its Western NATO partners has grown loveless. But neither side is ready for an official divorce.