President Trump made good on a campaign promise with the U.S. Special Operations raid on Barisha, Syria that sent Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into a dead-end tunnel, where he blew himself and three of his children to bits. In May 2019, Mr. Trump had announced “the end of the caliphate” in the territorial sense, but the Americans have now eliminated its theological master and terrorist dictator. Bravo to the brave, intrepid, and patriotic men and women who proved once again, as President George W. Bush said, that “you can run, but you can’t hide.”
Let’s clear the quick and stupid stuff first: No, this is not the end of ISIS ideology or terrorism spawned by it; no, it doesn’t fix the problem of Syria; no, it doesn’t make things right with the Kurds; no it doesn’t slow Iran’s desire for a hegemonic land bridge to the Mediterranean. And, yes, The Washington Post is an idiot.
Now, the implications. Most important for the future of the region and elsewhere, the ISIS concept of a land-based “caliphate” has probably expired. A retired naval commander notes:
It’s not 2013 anymore, when the progress of ISIS as a territory-gobbling guerrilla-terrorist force became evident. Their progress was defined by the Euphrates River, which they were following from the general area of Raqqa, from one side, and a general area between Ramadi and Haditha on the other, to link up between the Syria-Iraq border and Deir-ez-Zor. The fact that they were trying to consolidate and control that area was an arresting indication of their intentions, and then in 2014 they stormed into Mosul in the north.
The ISIS plan was different from that of al-Qaeda, which hid in caves in Afghanistan, as remote from its targets as it could be — and thus believed itself safe from retaliation. ISIS planted itself and its flag in the middle of Syria and Iraq: The benefit being oil fields with their revenue, land for training and operations, the ability to levy taxes on the population, and show how a “real” Islamic civilization would work. Not too many people were impressed.
Its one thing to coerce and threaten people to live in the “caliphate” under the rules you set for them, and entirely another to have people embrace those rules. Far more people were coerced than embraced the cause — and thousands who embraced the cause are presently sitting behind barbed wire, further reducing the appeal of a physical entity with governing powers.
Kurds and Arabs, who didn’t agree on much, agreed on that. Turkey’s Recip Tayyip Erdogan, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter and Islamist himself, found it in his interest to cooperate with the United States on the raid. Iraq, in the midst of an uprising of millennials unhappy with Iranian interference in their country, provided intelligence to the U.S. Russia, long a foe of Sunni jihad — and fearing its return to southern Russia in Chechnya, stood down for the Americans and had its Syrian satrap do the same.
The president, rightly, thanked them all.
There is an emerging thread of political thought in the Middle East that “political Islam” is on the decline. Professor Hillel Frisch points to the absence of reaction to the death of Mohammad Morsi in Egypt, and the absence, over the past few months, of religious demands by protesters in both Algeria and Sudan. To this can be added the incendiary protests in Iraq and Lebanon — that, if anything, show an extreme distaste for religious leadership.
The physical demise of ISIS, followed by the ignominious death of al-Baghdadi, can only enhance a positive trend.
We don’t know exactly how the Americans got in, did their job and got out. And we don’t need to know. What we do know, according to the president, is that al-Baghdadi went “whimpering and crying and screaming” into that tunnel — as cowards do. As people willing to kill, rape, pillage, and force others into the vilest forms of servitude do when it is their turn to pay.