As reported in Newsweek, Khalid Aydd Ahmed al-Jabouri is dead, killed in Syria by US forces according to US Central Command (CENTCOM). In releasing a statement about the late ISIS leader, CENTCOM officials noted that Khalid Aydd Ahmad al-Jabouri’s death will “temporarily disrupt the organization’s ability to plot external attacks.”
CENTCOM forces conducted a unilateral strike in Syria killing an ISIS senior leader responsible for planning attacks into Europe. pic.twitter.com/hwVjqdUTee
— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) April 4, 2023
Jabouri was killed in a drone strike at an undisclosed location in north-western Syria. CENTCOM tells us that no civilians were injured in the raid. Reminding us that ISIS is indeed not yet totally destroyed, CENTCOM commander General Michael E. Kurilla, said,
“ISIS continues to represent a threat to the region and beyond. Though degraded, the group remains able to conduct operations with the region with a desire to strike beyond the Middle East.”
Regarding Jabouri, he “was responsible for planning ISIS attacks into Europe and developed the leadership structure for ISIS.” General Kurilla reminds us that,
“operations against ISIS alongside partner forces in Iraq and Syria continue and CENTCOM remains committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
The Islamic State, or Daesh, once held over 34,000 square miles of territory in western Syria and eastern Iraq. They held near-total control over millions of people. Today, their numbers have dwindled to roughly 5,000 to 7,000 members and supporters, most of whom live in rural areas. They continue to carry out ambushes and roadside bombings.
A Historical Drawdown of Forces
The US military has gone through a drawdown of several unconventional wars that took place in Afghanistan and Iraq. Various covert and open military assistance has also died down across the Middle East and North Africa—all except for Syria.
The US government was first involved in Syria at the beginning of the civil war, with calls to Assad’s regime to peacefully transition to elections and share power. When protestors were gunned down and barrel bombed, the training program on the opposition started.
In the ensuing powder keg , various Islamist militant factions took advantage of the vacuum. Two of these groups were al-Qaeda in Syria and the ISIS extremist organization.
At the height of ISIS’ reign of terror in the region, the jihadists had committed genocide against the ethnic minorities of the region and attempted to do the same to the Syrian Kurds. After failing to convince Turkey to militarily intervene, Operation Inherent Resolve commenced against the group in the nation.
It has now been eight years of military intervention in Syria and there has been no clear policy on how to continue the operations or to end the war. This has led to disputes on whether or not Syria will become the next ‘forever’ war of the United States.
Operations Against ISIS and al-Qaeda
Operation Inherent Resolve is a broader coalition effort of quelling Islamist insurgencies that resulted in ethnic cleansing. Partnering with the Syrian Kurds, which make up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), this coalition was successful in retaking major cities controlled by ISIS.
When ISIS resorted to more guerrilla tactics, the Pentagon went back to its roots of deploying Special Operations Forces to liquidate and capture high-value targets. The biggest raid in Syria was the death of ISIS’ emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Idlib. Coalition forces have also carried out several dozen successful raids in Northern and Eastern Syria, including the recent raid on Khalid Aydd Ahmed al-Jabouri, who was responsible for terror attacks in Europe.
Policy Towards Assad
The majority of combat operations in Syria have been conducted against terrorist organizations, but occasionally against the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad has resulted in desperate measures to keep his family’s seat of power by any means necessary, including the use of chemical weapons against civilians on several occasions.
These chemical weapons attacks were met with a lukewarm response by the United States, and it could be argued the lack of response towards red lines gave Assad’s partners, such as Iran and Russia new life on regional provocations. Special Operation Forces would see this kind of provocation during the Battle of Khasham when Syrian government forces and the Wagner Group attempted to overrun a SOCOM base in Eastern Syria. This would result in the death of hundreds of regime and Wagner mercenaries and only one coalition forces injury.
The Biden Administration remained ambiguous towards their Assad policy. This has caused friction with the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee as potentially lifting sanctions on Assad would indirectly help Iranian militias and Hezbollah plan future attacks against American forces and their allies in the region.
Status of Forces in Question
Though several thousand militants and their families were detained, the legality of detention and the security risks have come into question. Human rights organizations have detailed abuses by SDF in the al-Hawl along with the legality of many detentions as thousands still have not been given charges or trials.
There are fears that ISIS is using the camp to recruit a new generation of fighters akin to how Abu Ghraib ultimately held founding members of the organization during the War in Iraq. A daring breakout occurred several years ago which resulted in the death of hundreds of prisoners and SDF has questioned the ability of the US and its partners in Syria on their indefinite detention policies.
A Coalition Growing Smaller by the Day
The coalition against ISIS started with several dozen nations conducting combat operations, which mitigated the logistics strain on the United States by unilaterally taking the brunt of combat—but this has now changed.
Middle Eastern nations that took part in operations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have started to normalize with the Assad regime. Britain is going through an economic recession and the rest of Europe is now focusing on helping Ukraine to reclaim its territorial sovereignty.
The United States has a dwindling relationship with Turkey due to geopolitical disputes as Washington partnered with Kurdish militant groups that have historically fought the Turkish government. Likewise, Washington has not trusted Ankara as they initially refused to combat ISIS and have fought the SDF more so than the extremist groups in the country.
Israel’s policy has been the destruction of IRGC logistics in Syria as Assad has allowed Iran to funnel weapons to their proxies in his countries. Without a solid coalition, the United States’ mission in Syria is increasingly coming under scrutiny.
Status of Kurdish Forces
A major crossroads in the ongoing operations in Syria will be the fate of the Kurdish partners the United States has armed and trained. Currently, Syria is cut into several spheres and zones of influence with the population centers under Assad’s control, the north primarily under Turkish control, and the Northeast under US control.
Both Turkish and Syrian forces have fought against the SDF and one of the drifts in relations with Ankara has been the funding of the SDF, which has elements of the YPG. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had a falling out with the Trump Administration over the prospect that the SDF would be left to slaughter by Turkish forces and those fears continue as Ankara has attempted to normalize with Damascus. Even if Erdogan were to lose his upcoming general election, most Turkish parties agree on the destruction of a powerful Kurdish force on their borders, and relations will continue to sour.
The Mission is Becoming Increasingly Unpopular
Like the invasion of Iraq and decades in Afghanistan, the ongoing mission in Syria has come under criticism. The general public, which has become war-weary, has questioned what the mission of Central Command is in Syria and when troops will return home.
Congress has fiercely deliberated on the status of forces in the country with a recent vote against the bill to withdraw the remaining troops from the country. With the White House indecisive on its Syria and Iran policy and emerging threats arising in Eastern Europe and the Asian Pacific, calls will grow to remove troops from the country—even though it could result in the abandonment of partners akin to the Afghan Army.