No one could have seen this coming.
In early August, President Barack Obama revealed that he had approved targeted airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. The strikes were aimed at both halting the Islamic State’s advance on cities like Erbil and Baghdad, where American diplomatic and military assets were stationed, and to relieve the pressure on Iraqi minority groups targeted by ISIS for extermination or displacement. Some military analysts noted, however, that the president will be unable to achieve the objective of eliminating the ISIS threat, rather than simply disrupting the group’s operational tempo, unless he expanded the theater of operations to include Syria.
“After all, Syria is where ISIL developed into the fearsome jihadist juggernaut it is today, seizing vast swaths of territory, piles of heavy weapons and even oil fields,” former CIA counterterrorism analyst Aki Peritz wrote in Politico Magazine. “And it’s where much of ISIL’s thousands-strong fighting forces are still based.”
But the president remained steadfast in his determination to limit American operations to Iraq. Having determined that airstrikes on ISIS positions around the western Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where the encircled Yazidi minority had been trapped for weeks, was a success, the president determined (dubiously) that the American rescue mission in Iraq had completed its objective. He revealed that, with the exception of continued strikes on ISIS positions which threaten American military and diplomatic personnel, the latest American contingency operation in Iraq had been completed.
It seems Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has been listening to the president. A Kurdish official reportedly said on Friday that the Islamic State leader has left the Iraqi city of Mosul and has returned to Syria.
According to a report in the London-based Arabic news outlet Asharq al-Awsat, al-Baghdadi fled Iraq along with a convoy of ISIS militants.
“According to our intelligence sources, Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi traveled to Syria as part of a convoy of 30 Hummer vehicles after fearing being targeted by US airstrikes,” [Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) spokesman Saeed Mamo] Zinni said. He added that Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been able to kill a number of ISIS senior leaders.
An informed source in Mosul, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity, said that ISIS had killed all Yazidi men in the villages it had besieged around Sinjar after a deadline for them to convert to Islam expired. “[ISIS fighters also] raped the women and girls, and took the children to Mosul,” he added.
The source claimed that ISIS had recruited several young men from Mosul, and that many of the new recruits were sent to fight in the arid Jazeera region in Syria.
Al-Baghdadi’s flight from Iraq may seem like welcome news, but that ISIS fighters have not abandoned their assault on Iraqi targets. As Ed Morrissey flagged on Friday, the Islamic State remains as ambitious as ever.
“The United States believes that while the group remains largely focused on its brutal takeover of large areas of Iraq, there is also an ‘expansion of its external terrorist ambitions,’” CNN reported.