- President Donald Trump announced that U.S. special operations forces killed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
- While Baghdadi’s death is generally viewed as a symbolic hit for ISIS, many experts are worried it will not impact the group’s operations.
- The leader’s death also comes as Trump has moved to withdraw U.S. troops from Northern Syria, prompting concerns of an ISIS resurgence in the region.
President Donald Trump announced Sunday that United States forces had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
“Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world,” Trump said speaking at a press conference.
“U.S. special operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style,” he continued.
“The U.S. personnel were incredible. I got to watch much of it. No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions were killed with him.”
Trump went on to say that Baghdadi died by exploding a suicide vest after he was cornered in a dead-end tunnel, also killing three of his children.
“Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Our reach is very long,” the president added.
While Trump’s announcement is certainly significant, Baghdadi’s death has left many wondering: what does this mean for ISIS?
Implications for ISIS in Northern Syria
There are a couple of key issues at play here. First, and perhaps the most relevant geopolitical question, is the situation in Northern Syria.
Several weeks ago, the White House announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing troops from Northern Syria and stepping aside to let Turkey launch a military operation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the operation was necessary to clear Syrian Kurdish groups Turkey considers terrorists, and that the U.S. considers key allies who have done the majority of fighting against ISIS on the ground.
Many world leaders and politicians in the U.S., including some of Trump’s biggest supporters, condemned the move. They argued that not only was the U.S. abandoning an ally but that the move also could lead to a resurgence of ISIS in the region for two reasons.
First of all, with U.S. forces gone and Syrian Kurdish forces busy fighting a military attack from Turkey, ISIS could feel emboldened to attack and take over areas of Syria that the U.S. and the Kurds had fought to reclaim.
Second, Syrian Kurdish forces who had been guarding camps holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families would be short-staffed, again because many of them would have to shift to fight the Turkish invasion, making it easy for the captured fighters and their families to break out of the camps.
Already there have been reports that ISIS prisoners have broken free from the camps.
Although there are conflicting reports of how many exactly have escaped, last week, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey said in a testimony before the Senate that “over 100” ISIS militants had escaped, and that it was unclear where they were.
Even though Turkey and Syria agreed to a ceasefire last week, Kurdish forces on the ground guarding the prisons have said that they are still understaffed. As one guard told The Washington Post, “Half of our guards were transferred to the front line.”
With the U.S. withdrawing forces in Northern Syria, the power vacuum that they have created has been filled by the Syrian government and Russia, who the Kurdish forces have allied with for military and tactical support.
While the Trump administration has generally supported this move, many experts have argued that Russia and Syria do not have the ability to organize and command the same kind of coalition that the U.S. did to drive ISIS out of the region.
In short, if ISIS were to reemerge, those actors would not be equipt to deal with it.
“There is nobody else in the area that we’re talking about right now,” William Wechsler, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism told the Post.
Wechsler also added that if there were anyone in the area who had the ability to counter ISIS, “ISIS would not have emerged in the first place.”
Will Bahgdadi’s Death Hurt ISIS?
Another big question for the future of ISIS is how much the loss of their leader will impact them.
While many have said this is certainly a huge symbolic blow for the organization, a lot of experts have basically argued that the net impact will not really hurt ISIS.
“When you think about the impact it will have on ISIS going forward, this is more like the close of a chapter, but by no means the end of the story,” Nick Rasmussen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center told the Post.
Others have also pointed out that Baghdadi was obsessed with security and keeping himself safe, and as a result, he gave ISIS a lot of power to act on their own.
In fact, American and Iraqi officials told The New York Times that the elusive leader largely limited his communications with the outside world, meaning ISIS mostly operated with little leadership on his part.
“Baghdadi was a figurehead. He was not involved in operations or day-to-day,” one anonymous regional intelligence officer told Newsweek. “All Baghdadi did was say yes or no—no planning.”
Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group also told reporters that the autonomy of ISIS agents under Baghdadi prompted the group to become much more decentralized in both decision-making and financing, especially in Syria and Iraq.
Some have also pointed out that U.S. covert action against Islamist extremists have killed a number of militant leaders and the groups still lived on.
“In the annals of modern counterterrorism so far, what history has shown is these types of strikes do not lead to the strategic collapse or organizational defeat of a terrorism organization,” Javed Ali, a former White House counterterrorism director told the Post.
Other analysts and experts have even said that Baghdadi’s death could embolden ISIS cells to re-invent themselves, grow in recruits, or even band together to make bigger cells.
As the Times noted, two successors were killed before Baghdadi became the leader of ISIS, significantly expanding the group’s influence and reach.
“In the face of the kind of pressure and the mutual threats that they’ve experienced, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cooperation, even if it doesn’t mean a public alliance,” Tricia Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official told the Post.
Others, however, have been more optimistic about ISIS’s inability to re-group following Baghdadi’s death.
“Their recovery has been very slow, their organization is fragile and the killing of Baghdadi is bad timing for them,” Hassan Hassan of the Center for Global Policy said. “Even though they have likely prepared for this moment, it will be hard for them to ensure the organization remains intact.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (NPR)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”