The swift and daring raid by members of the United States Special Operations Command to take out Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a resounding success. Al-Baghdadi who was considered the head of ISIS and established a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq before being routed by a U.S.-led coalition. That coalition included the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who did a lion’s share of the fighting. About 11,000 Kurds were killed in the fighting to rid the region of ISIS.
Now, that al-Baghdadi is gone, the ridiculous in-fighting of American politics is taking root. Democrats are trying to downplay the significance of the taking out of ISIS’ leadership while forgetting that the former Vice President, who is now a candidate for President totally embraced the killing of Osama bin-Laden after the 2011 operation where SEAL Team 6 commandos killed the leader of al-Qaeda in his compound in Pakistan. “Bin-Laden is dead, GM is alive!” was the rallying cry.
Democrats were also smarting from being cut out of the loop. President Trump didn’t notify either Nancy Pelosi or Adam Schiff of the operation, citing Operational Security (OPSEC). Even more galling was that President Trump briefed the Russians on the incursion into their airspace. Since the U.S. has been on the ground in Syria, the two sides have agreed to a no-flyover zone over each other’s territory. This operation had to overfly Russian airspace.
Republicans are acting like an operation like this has never been conducted before. But the biggest issue to come out of this has been ignored. Does the operation that took out ISIS’ leader change our relationship with the Kurds?
After seeing how the events played out and President Trump’s earlier actions where he was seen as abandoning the Kurdish people by withdrawing our troops from Syria, his comments on Sunday morning were enough to give pause.
While giving kudos to the commandos from SOCOM, Trump in his own inimitable way, tooted his own horn and then thanked Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Syrian Kurds, and warned, “We have others in sight. Very bad ones.” He said while the Kurds didn’t play a military role in the actual operation but provided “some information that turned out to be helpful.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, however, was much less enthusiastic and didn’t name the Kurds by name. Talking with CNN, Esper would only say, “we had some help… from outside partners.”
The Kurds took to social media to play up their intelligence role in the operation. As early as April, Kurdish SDF intelligence had reported that al-Baghdadi was in the area. The commander in chief of the SDF, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, characterized the raid as “joint intel cooperation on the ground and accurate monitoring” for five months. On Twitter, he said, “Thanks to everybody who participate in this great mission,” even tagging President Trump in the post.
SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali reported “a successful and effective operation by our forces” on Sunday. He added that the operation was “yet another proof of SDF’s anti-terror capability.”
In another operation, Kurdish intelligence pinpointed another ISIS high-level target, a supposed senior lieutenant to al-Baghdadi and a possible successor. The Kurds claim that Abu Hassan al-Muhajir was also killed in a raid. That information has not been confirmed by US officials.
Mazloum Abdi said his group’s intelligence cooperated with the U.S. military to target al-Muhajir in a village near Jarablus in northwestern Syria. It was reported that al-Muhajir was traveling in a convoy consisting of a tanker truck and an automobile sedan. The victims of the second raid were badly burned so, confirming his identity would be difficult. However, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the death of al-Muhajir.
Kurdish intelligence reported that al-Muhajir was in the area to facilitate the movement of al-Baghdadi.
Some will argue that this operation is proof that the decision to leave Syria was not well thought out and that this should be the impetus to remain in Syria and continue to attack what remains of ISIS. However, there is a very real good chance that this operation is all that Trump requires to validate his decision to leave and gives him his face-saving moment where he declares victory, pats himself on the back and leaves.
But the U.S. has continued to work with the SDF, despite the pullout of US Forces in northeast Syria by reinforcing the oil fields to prevent them from falling back into ISIS hands.
The Turkish invasion and their battles with the SDF come from the fact that they believe that the SDF is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the Turks believe to be part of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is considered a terrorist group by Turkey.
The Kurds are one of the oldest peoples in the region. Despite attempts to assimilate them in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, they remain fiercely nationalistic. They speak their own language and have their own customs. The name “Kurd” has appeared in Arab writings as far back as the ninth century.
Several chieftains set up independent tribal Kurdish territories in what is now Iran, Turkey, and Iraq. One of the earliest Kurdish chieftains was the warlord Salah al-Din, the same Saladin who fought against the Crusades
Despite the U.S. and the Kurds partnering in both Iraq and in Syria, there is little hope of the United States committing long-term to any Kurdish alliance. And with the U.S. withdrawing from most of the area in Syria, this will not bode well for Kurdish autonomy. In the short term, due to the weakness of Assad’s government in Syria, they may enjoy some autonomy. But once Assad regains a firm control of the country, this too may change.
While the U.S. is trying to repair its long-time alliance with Turkey, the Erdogan government is moving farther away from NATO and building a closer alliance with Russia. But the driving factor in this situation right now is the 2020 election. President Trump is running for re-election under the banner of getting the United States out of Middle East wars, which have come at a great cost to the nation with precious little to show for it. Therefore, don’t expect much to change in the meantime.
The Kurds, however, will ultimately survive, with or without U.S. help. They’ve survived centuries of oppression and will survive this latest development. In the ever-shifting sands of Middle East politics, they are survivors.