Friday, November 1, 2019


The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, caused by a raid by Army Delta Force operators based in Iraq, was an enormous but not fatal blow to that dangerous terrorist network. Others among the ISIS leadership are being hunted and killed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was outraged that President Trump didn’t notify Congress before the raid, though he did notify Russia. Custom, not the law or the U.S. Constitution requires notifying Congress, so she’s way off base. The sad fact is that we had to notify Russia because Russia controls the airspace our Delta guys had to fly through to get to their target.

The Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) under the command of Gen. Mazloum Abdi claimed credit for the intelligence that enabled the Baghdadi raid. Gen. Abdi told an interviewer that the Kurds want us to return to Syria as their ally. That isn’t possible until Mr. Trump determines what our policy in Syria should be. At this moment, it’s comprehensively muddled.

Mr. Trump’s Syria strategy seems to change weekly. In less than a month we’ve gone from fighting ISIS alongside our SDF allies to abandoning them to a Turkish invasion to reversing ourselves to cooperate with them to protect Syrian oil and prevent further escape of imprisoned ISIS terrorists. 

ISIS largely had been funding itself by sale of Syrian oil, so having those oil reserves under SDF control cut off that funding. Now, having abandoned the Kurds, Mr. Trump has decided that our troops must protect the oil. 

Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked whether we were redeploying U.S. troops to keep the oil reserves out of Syrian and Russian hands. He said, “The short answer is yes, it presently does.” 

“Presently” is the operative word. Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Esper has said how long our troops will be protecting Syrian oil or why it could be worth spending American lives to do so. In an Oct. 28 speech, Mr. Trump said “We’re keeping the oil.” Does he really mean to claim northeast Syria’s oil as American property? For 243 years, America’s wars were only to defend freedom, not seize what isn’t ours.

The fact that we had to get Russian permission to fly across Syria demonstrates how little power and influence we now have in that nation. The same holds true in Iraq, as demonstrated by the Iraqi government’s statement that the U.S. troops who were redeployed from Syria to Iraq must leave within a month.

The plain fact is that the fates of ISIS and Syria are out of our hands. They will be decided by Russia, Iran and Turkey and by ISIS’s internal politics.

Both Russia and Iran want to grow their already-established presence in Syria. Russia has established naval and air bases in western Syria and will build other bases to the east. Russia is tolerant of terrorist networks that do not attack its territory. Russia may help fund ISIS like it is funding and arming the Taliban.

Iran’s aim in Syria is to expand its bases close to Israel (thereby increasing its threat to Israel) and to further its virtual dominance of Iraq. The fact that ISIS, under al-Baghdadi, was more a Sunni Islamist group than Shiite doesn’t mean it will be shunned by Iran if Iran determines ISIS to be otherwise useful.  

Iran’s “realpolitik” view of Sunni terrorist networks has led it to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. Similarly, that view will probably lead it to fund, arm and reorganize ISIS cells to attack Israel and Western nations. If a new ISIS leader under Iran’s control arises, Iran could try to shift ISIS’s ideology more to its Shiite form of Islamism.

Despite the death of al-Baghdadi, ISIS is not defeated. It remains a powerful symbol and Islamist ideology that has drawn supporters and fighters — young men and women from many European and Middle Eastern nations — to its banner. It is in the interests of nations such as Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to keep that symbol alive and maintain its threat to the West.

Like most terrorist networks, ISIS operates in small units under general control of some charismatic figure like al-Baghdadi. Deprived of funds it derived from sale of Syrian oil, ISIS can sell drugs, tax people in city neighborhoods, towns or villages in Syria and Iraq, and raise money through blackmail and kidnapping. However, many of the over 10,000 ISIS fighters escape Kurdish custody or are released will have choices limited only by Syria’s Russian and Iranian masters.

Unless another charismatic leader arises soon, ISIS could fall apart, shift allegiances or simply be re-formed under a different name. Alternatively, many, if not most, ISIS fighters could join other terrorist groups. Some will use their European passports to return home and continue their terrorism there. They won’t suddenly become peaceful, productive citizens.

The world is a better place without Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as much as it is without the recently deceased Hamza bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son, who was being groomed to take over al Qaeda. But their deaths are just episodes in the whack-a-mole strategy we have pursued since 9/11. As this column has said many times, unless and until we destroy the Islamist ideology, these endless wars will never end except in our defeat.

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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