Last month, Iraqi forces reportedly targeted a compound where Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)’s leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, was believed to have been staying, killing nine of his senior associates. Subsequent reports have indicated he wasn’t in the compound during the strike.
The assassination of Baghdadi would have been a momentary coup for the struggling efforts against ISIS’s reign of terror in eastern Syria and western Iraq, which has led to the displacement of thousands of people. At the same time, this new “Republic of Fear” has been a recruiting ground for tens of thousands of foreign jihadists.
However ISIS is a lot more resilient than the leadership of one man.Andrew Bowen
However, as a number of scholars note, ISIS is a lot more resilient than the leadership of one man. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS should be understood as a Maoist-style insurgency driven from the ground up, according to Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economic (LSE).
Most likely, his death, in any future strike, will have little immediate impact. Baghdadi, who has been injured before in assassination attempts, has reportedly taken steps to ensure that ISIS can exist for the foreseeable future.
No U.S. strategy
His reported death came on the heels of President Barack Obama’s interview with U.S. news program 60 Minutes, during which he acknowledged the difficulties of the U.S.-led coalition’s struggle against ISIS more than a year since the organization seized Mosul.
Pressed on the stalemate, Obama said: “Over time, the community of nations will all get rid of them, and we will be leading getting rid of them. But we are not going to be able to get rid of them unless there is an environment inside of Syria and in portions of Iraq in which local populations, local Sunni populations, are working in a concerted way with us to get rid of them.”
Obama’s acknowledgement of the intractable and stalled nature of the campaign to counter ISIS cannot become a substitute for the absence of U.S. leadership and strategy in his final 14 months in office. With General Allen’s retirement as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, his successor, Brett McGurk will likely similarly struggle the absence of a coherent strategy.
Competing great powers
Iran, which has struggled to fight ISIS in Iraq while choosing to not fight it in Syria, faced its own setbacks in Syria in recent weeks, reportedly at the hands of the group. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deputy responsible for Syria operations, Hossein Hamedani, was assassinated in Aleppo, along with a few other senior officers.
Russia’s entry into Syria to shore up the government has further hampered the anti-ISIS campaign. On the one hand, Moscow’s campaign has begun to reverse losses on the battlefield that the Syrian government had faced this past spring against the U.S.- and Gulf-backed opposition.
On the other hand, among the most immediate beneficiaries of this operation appears to be ISIS who has taken advantage of Russia’s strategy. Moscow has deliberately avoided targeting ISIS, despite Russian security officials noting earlier this month that they disrupted an ISIS attack on Moscow’s public transportation system.
The current joint Russian-Iranian campaign to retake Aleppo appears to be the closest these states have come to directly fighting ISIL.
Tensions between Moscow and Washington have also hampered the ability of the U.S.-led air campaign to safely and effectively operate in Syria’s air space, and several times Russia violated the air space of Turkey, a NATO ally. In response, Ankara requested that the United States keep Patriot missile batteries near the Syrian border, which Washington had scheduled to withdraw.
U.S. efforts to seek de-confliction agreements with Moscow have achieved mixed results. Russian officials have even reportedly urged Washington to focus its efforts on fighting ISIS in Iraq and to stay out of Syria. The increased arming of Syrian rebels groups with U.S.-made anti-tank TOW missiles has led to further tensions. Russia’s embassy in Damascus was coincidentally shelled earlier this month.
Such disagreements have hampered the ability of the United States, Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to work together against ISIS. Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin led to no change in Moscow’s position, despite Riyadh’s warnings of the consequences such actions have on Russia’s long-term position in the region.
Until the United States, GCC, Russia and Iran come to an agreement on Syria’s and Iraq’s political futures, it will be difficult to effectively fight ISIS. The recent announcement of a Russia, GCC, and U.S. meeting on Syria could be a positive step. Washington has a critical role to play in providing leadership and resources, but so far Obama has been reluctant to commit either.
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