A capture or confirmed kill of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would put quite the exclamation point on Donald Trump’s declaration of victory … if. Until now, analysts assumed that the self-professed caliph had long bugged out of the remaining few square kilometers still controlled by ISIS. CNN’s Arwa Damon reported earlier this morning that Baghdadi might be closer than first assumed, although she also notes that we’ve though we were close before on more than one occasion:
Senior Iraqi intelligence sources tell CNN they may be close to capturing elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. @arwaCNN reports on the search from Iraq. https://t.co/h5nF1gYO6H pic.twitter.com/q3S8Gx1phF
— New Day (@NewDay) February 21, 2019
How many times have we thought we were closing to nailing Baghdadi, one way or the other? Last summer, the Russians thought they’d killed him, and then the Iraqis believed a report that Baghdadi had expired one war or another a month afterward. Two months later, Baghdadi put out another tape exhorting the faithful to rise up and blah blah blah, while somehow avoiding being in places where locals and the US were rising up to crush ISIS.
If Trump’s hoping for a Baghdadi finale for an easy out from Syria, let’s just say it’s a long shot. The ‘caliph’ isn’t into his own martyrdom; he’s into having others commit martyrdom for his sake. Baghdadi is likely as far away as possible from the last few blocks ISIS still controls, along with a hefty number of his followers:
More than 1,000 ISIS fighters have likely fled from Syria into the mountains and deserts of western Iraq in the past six months, and they may have up to $200 million in cash with them, according to a US military official familiar with situation.
ISIS fighters have continued to flee even as the final fighting has unfolded in the group’s last stronghold in southeastern Syria. Some of the last fighters are also believed to be former members of al Qaeda in Iraq, according to a second official. The assessments and estimates of ISIS’ strength come in the finals days of the physical caliphate, the officials said.
Earlier this month, Gen. Joseph Votel, the four-star general in charge of US military operations in the Middle East, estimated there were 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters remaining — which lines up with a UN estimate from August. A US Defense Department report from the summer estimated there are between 15,500 and 17,100 ISIS militants in Iraq and another 14,000 in Syria.
In other words, there’s still plenty to do to achieve complete victory over ISIS. The Trump administration may be figuring that out as well. The Washington Post reported today that our allies have refused to send troops to Syria as long as the US insists on withdrawing, which is just a wee bit awkward:
Allies have “unanimously” told the United States that they “won’t stay if you pull out,” a senior administration official said. France and Britain are the only other countries with troops on the ground in the U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State.
Along with the United States, they have provided training, supplies, logistics and intelligence for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated group that has done most of the fighting. U.S., French and British forces also operate heavy artillery and conduct the airstrikes that have been decisive against the militants.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last week that he was mystified by Trump’s policy. On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that “there is no prospect of British forces replacing the Americans” in Syria.
European refusal to stay unless President Trump reverses at least part of his troop withdrawal order is one of several factors that U.S. military officials, lawmakers and senior administration officials have said should make Trump think again.
Indeed. It makes less sense to stay in Afghanistan in the middle of its tribal/civil war than it does to protect key strategic interests in fighting ISIS, which has attacked the US in different ways all along. This failed sotto voce attempt to get our allies to replace us may be a sign that the White House has begun to rethink those withdrawal plans — or at least now recognizes the strategic issues in play.