Analysis

Baghdadi's Death Is Symbolic Victory for Trump – but Can't Undo Damage Done in Syria

The timing of the ISIS leader's killing benefits Trump, but it is unlikely to hamper the group's plans for attacks

Still image taken from video of a man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in Mosul.
\ Reuters TV/ REUTERS

The operation to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, took place at a very convenient time for U.S. President Donald Trump. A few weeks after he abandoned the Kurds – leaving them alone to face the Turkish invasion of northern Syria and setting off a chain of events that might lead to the escape of thousands of ISIS prisoners – this important symbolic victory gives Trump useful ammunition to counter his many critics. 

It should be noted that Baghdadi has been declared dead a number of times, including after a Russian bombing at the beginning of the year. This time, however, Americans are showing a great deal of confidence reporting the successful outcome of the operation. In 2011, when under President Barack Obama the Americans killed Al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Trump tweeted that the U.S. Navy Seals had killed bin Laden, not the president; this is true now as well, although Trump will probably not be generous in sharing the credit with the troops, as he demanded at the time from Obama.

Yoram Schweitzer, a researcher specializing in terror at the Institute for National Security Studies, told Haaretz on Sunday morning that the importance of killing Baghdadi, assuming it is confirmed, is mainly symbolic. According to Schweitzer, the main achievement of the international coalition fighting ISIS was already attained nearly two years ago, with the final fall of the caliphate, the “Islamic State” founded over a large area of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The fall of its last bastions, in the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, changed the modus operandi of ISIS – which reverted to operating as a terror and guerilla organization, without control over territory.

“The entity that called itself the Islamic State in fact already disappeared then,” Schweitzer said. He noted that al-Baghdadi appeared twice this year, in a video address disseminated in April and then in an audio address about a month ago, after he was silent for about five years. In the video clip he posted in April, al-Baghdadi looked and acted like a guerilla fighter, holding a Kalashnikov rifle and encouraging the fighters to hold out. Indeed, the organization did manage to commit terror attacks, almost every week, in Syria and Iraq.

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Schweitzer added that ISIS had prepared ahead of time to find a successor for Baghdadi, in light of the knowledge that the Americans were continuing their manhunt for him. He minimized Baghdadi’s importance as a long-term symbol for his organization, despite the reports that he had blown himself up with an explosive belt when he realized he could not flee the American forces who raided his hideout in the Idlib enclave in western Syria.

Obama began the main move against ISIS when he decided to establish an international coalition to attack the organization and destroy the caliphate after a series of shocking executions of Western citizens in Syria in the summer of 2014. About three years later, the Americans, under Trump, completed the takeover of Mosul and Raqqa. 

The organization will continue to act, under new leadership, in the form it has adopted over the past two years – small cells, compartmentalized, without control over large areas. One of ISIS’ most significant enclaves is actually near Israel: the Sinai Province, a branch affiliated with ISIS that has been waging a war of attrition against the Egyptian army for years now. Another branch of ISIS, in the southern Syrian Golan, was dislodged by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad with Russian assistance, almost two years ago.

Another danger from ISIS comes from individuals identified with the organization, some of them veterans of the battles in Syria and Iraq, who are returning to their homes in Europe and other places in the world. Their plans to carry out more attacks will not be impaired by the “beheading” of their organization’s leader.

Moreover, the flight of the Kurds from the Turks who invaded northeastern Syria with Trump’s approval is expected to lead to a loss of the remnant of oversight on the detention facilities in which thousands of ISIS figures are held. First and foremost Al-Hol, a refugee camp crowded with tens of thousands of people (mostly civilians) connected to ISIS. The damage that will result from the collapse of the detention centers in the Kurdish areas might well greatly outweigh the benefit of Baghdadi’s killing.