In Brief

Islamic State Leader’s Death Does Little to Ease Syria Concerns

A U.S. military operation that eliminated Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is welcome but fails to allay worries about the security vacuum caused by the removal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.

How significant for counterterrorism efforts is the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State?

Iraqi youth watch news of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death.
Iraqi youth watch news of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death. Alaa al-Marjani/Reuters

It is obviously gratifying to have eliminated a despicable terrorist responsible for so much suffering all around the world, and U.S. military and intelligence personnel deserve great credit for their skill and bravery in doing so. But there is little reason to believe that Baghdadi’s death will have a significant effect on the Islamic State or counterterrorism efforts in general. Baghdadi was on the run and reportedly in bad health for years, limiting his leadership role. The Islamic State is in any case a relatively flat organization, analogous to a global network of franchises, and it likely did not depend significantly on Baghdadi’s activities or strategic direction. Just as in previous cases, such as that of the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2006, one terrorist boss can be quickly and easily replaced by another. It is even possible that Baghdadi’s death will complicate counterterrorism efforts by providing new inspiration to Islamic State members determined to avenge his death—and deliberate humiliation by U.S. President Donald J. Trump. 

How important is a continued U.S. presence in Syria to counter the remnants of the Islamic State and stabilize the region?

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The Baghdadi raid speaks for itself. There is simply no way that operation could have been conducted so effectively without a nearby military presence, intelligence based on local contacts, and the ability to leverage partners on the ground—all of which the United States will lose if it leaves northern Syria entirely. U.S. military and intelligence officials have said that Trump’s withdrawal decision forced them to accelerate plans for the raid before the forces they needed to execute it had left the area. Beyond any single operation, the presence of U.S. forces in northern Syria has played an important ongoing role: gathering intelligence, fighting Islamic State remnants, and enabling local Kurdish and Arab partners to devote resources to guarding thousands of Islamic State detainees. All these roles will now have to be filled by less reliable actors, such as Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Russia, if they are played at all. The U.S. withdrawal also risks creating a dangerous vacuum, which will draw in Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the Islamic State—which is not exactly a recipe for future stability. 

How should the United States respond to Turkey’s intervention, and does Congress have a role to play?

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U.S. policy on this issue had been inconsistent and incoherent. At times, President Trump has seemed to sympathize with Turkish perspectives, justifying Turkey’s claimed need to go after Kurdish terrorist groups and entrusting Ankara to lead the fight against the Islamic State; at other times, he has threatened to “obliterate” the Turkish economy for attacking the Kurds. There is a lot of talk in Congress now about imposing tough economic sanctions on Turkey, but lawmakers should be careful to link any sanctions to specific, practical, and achievable aims, rather than just hitting Turkey out of pique. For example, new sanctions could be linked to war crimes or human rights abuses by Turkish forces or groups under their control. They could also be tied to violations of commitments to refrain from military incursions into major Kurdish population centers, to not send forces beyond agreed lines, and to cooperate with U.S. military and law enforcement agencies on sharing intelligence and managing Islamic State detainees. Blanket bans on investment or defense cooperation with Turkey might feel good, but they would likely just drive Turkey further into the arms of Russia and Iran.

The Trump administration now looks to be focusing on safeguarding oil fields from the Islamic State and for other purposes. How does this shift the calculus in Syria?

There is no domestic or international legal basis for leaving U.S. troops in Syria to safeguard Syrian oil fields, let alone to “take some” of the oil, which Trump has also proposed to do. Beyond the dubious legality, the idea of deploying a small number of U.S. troops deep in eastern Syria for this purpose is impractical and counterproductive—and certainly inconsistent with Trump’s pledges to get out of the region entirely. No U.S. oil company is going to risk operating in this part of the world for access to small amounts of low-quality Syrian oil to which they have no legal right and which would be difficult to protect. It says something about Trump’s world view that he is willing to devote resources and risk conflict for access to a small amount of oil but was unwilling to do so to protect the Kurdish partners who lost more than ten thousand lives fighting the Islamic State so Americans didn’t have to.

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Syria

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Middle East and North Africa

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