The firefight that killed ISIS official Abu Sayyaf by U.S. Special Operations is a major achievement and long overdue against the ISIS leadership. Sayyaf's wife, Umm Sayyaf, was captured during the firefight and is currently in Iraqi military detention. There are implications of the killing that go beyond the role of the couple in ISIS’s economic operations.
Interestingly, the operation is highly reminiscent of the killing of Abu Mussab Al-Zarqawi in June 2006. It is not so much the method of the killing as it is for the significance. Al-Zarqawi of course is known as the head of Al-Qaeda Iraq, the precursor to today’s ISIS. Al-Zarqawi played a major role in a number of key operations back in the 2000s in Iraq. Just as targeting Al Zarqawi to “cut off the head of the snake” the SOF operation killing Abu Sayyaf meant to not only illuminate a battlefield commander but also kill part of ISIS’s economic model of illicit criminal activity including oil sales and slavery.
It is important to note the role of Jordan and American special operations forces in the Hashemite Kingdom. In Zarqa is the Joint Special Operations Command and a presence of American special operators and their equipment for raids into Syria. American special operations along with other Arab operators, have been set for such a raid for a while now because Zarqa is at the confluence of the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Jordanian special operation forces are especially well connected with the topography and network within ISIS to gather valuable intelligence.
Was Iraq in the equation?
The Iraqi part of the equation that led to the Delta force killing of Abu Sayyaf also is vital. Baghdad needs a tactical victory badly given that ISIS is now trying to control Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province in Iraq. Despite the tactical defeat of ISIS in Tikrit last month, ISIS is continuing its path of destruction. ISIS has taken over the main government compound that houses the Anbar governor’s office, police headquarters, and intelligence headquarters. Hikmat Suleiman, the spokesman for Anbar's governor stated that ISIS managed to seize the heavily fortified complex on mainly due to a lack of backing from the central Baghdad government: “For months we were complaining and telling the Security Ministries that there was no coordination," he said, adding that the military ignored requests for much needed weapons.” In other words, the Iraqi security forces may not be on top of their game.
The fact that Ramadi fell—for the time being—goes into the timing of the Abu Sayyaf raid and claims of Iraqi permission. The Abadi government, along with its Iranian-backed Shiite militias, are fighting a gruesome battle in Anbar. In addition, with Ramadi going to ISIS for the time being, ISIS is close again to Baghdad. One Gulf official told me that he questions Iraq was involved in the operation all together. “The government was certainly aware but that was the end of the story: they are too busy with their own failures.” Now there are Iraqi security forces moving on Ramadi; there perhaps may be no time for Syrian operations or coordination.
Finally, the Abu Sayyaf raid is a major statement to the participants in the Camp David meetings regarding GCC security requirements. In the wake of the discussions—which at the end of the day resulted in nothing truly new—the Obama administration is illustrating perhaps a new face on targeting ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps the day of enforcing red lines is actually here instead of Washington backing off. In addition, now that Delta Forces have been used in Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve actually has real teeth. That fact is highly significant in order to actually destroy the ISIS economic model.
The prognosis is that more raids may become fashionable.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.
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