Spoiler alert: It is too early to say. However, I would not be surprised to find that they did not. The ISIS leader has already been “killed” over a dozen times only to emerge somewhere else. In much the same way that Osama bin Laden was “killed” many, many times.
But the fact of whether he has indeed been killed is, until we know for sure, really besides the point. Either way, this is good propaganda war. And for as long as there is a question mark over the facts of the matter, the mere possibility that it is true ensures that the claim serves its purpose.
Firstly, the claim is credible. It certainly is possible that Russia did manage to kill al Baghdadi. As the ISIS infrastructure is collapsing around their ears, the possibility that their Caliph has been killed is likely to deal a serious blow to the morale of the remaining foot soldiers still fighting.
It is also extremely helpful that as things stand ISIS cannot do much to counter the claim – the communications channels between the leadership and the remnants of the fighting force are severely hampered, not least by the fact that the much of the leadership has already evacuated from the Levant.
Whether al Baghdadi is dead or is in hiding, or has fled the region, the ISIS command chain will have a tough time persuading the foot soldiers that their leader is still standing behind them. And without the leader, there is no kingdom.
Without a so-called Caliphate, much of the appeal of the group is lost. Not to mention the psychological shock it must be to a religious fanatic to discover that perhaps their God is not on their side and will not deliver them to victory.
But for Russia this serves another purpose. The justification for their intervention in Syria was that they were there to fight terrorism.
They conveniently happened to define terrorism as all opposition to the Assad government, and they mostly used the cover to attack the Western- and Gulf-backed “moderate” opposition, while ISIS was largely left to its own devices, but the notion that they were in there to fight the same terrorism the West was supposed to be waging war on still had rhetorical value.
Do not forget that Russia has been at pains to prolong the conflict for as long as it could financially afford to, to keep the wave of refugees flowing toward Europe in order to destabilize the Old Continent politicallyDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The claim that it was they who finally killed al Baghdadi will be used to justify Russia’s position in the war, both to its domestic audience and to the international one. They will suggest this vindicates their claim that they are in Syria to fight terrorism and ISIS all along.
Never mind the hospitals, humanitarian convoys and civilian populations that the also bombed to dust in rebel areas of the country which had nothing to do with ISIS. Never mind the starvation sieges and the chemical attacks carried out by Assad, which they have provided cover for.
Is al Baghdadi really dead? Perhaps sooner or later we will find out. And if Russia has indeed managed to kill him, that is no bad thing. But do not let this cloud our understanding of the situation: Russia is not our friend in this conflict. This is what has made the Syria conflict so difficult to parse. In this conflict, the enemy of our enemy is by no means our friend.
Do not forget that Russia has been primarily fighting our allies in the conflict. Do not forget that Russia is responsible for either carrying out atrocities, or for defending their ally Assad when he committed atrocities against civilians every bit as horrific as ISIS themselves.
Do not forget that Russia has been at pains to prolong the conflict for as long as it could financially afford to, to keep the wave of refugees flowing toward Europe in order to destabilize the Old Continent politically.
And be in no doubt that Russia will continue to heap as much misery on the Syrian people as will help Vladimir Putin’s cold, political calculations for the region.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.