All praise to the brave special forces operators and CIA analysts who took down the heinous ISIS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
President Trump gets credit for ordering the raid, but his effusive self-praise diminished the moment. (He apparently forgot his tweet storm in 2012 demanding that credit for Osama bin Laden’s demise go to “our brave military and intelligence officers,” not to President Obama.)
Moreover, Trump’s remarks on Baghdadi’s death, along with the wild news conference that followed, ignored the heavy cost of his sudden retreat from Syria, which nearly undercut the Baghdadi mission. That retreat leaves the door open for the rise of new jihadi movements.
Most unsettling, Trump offered thanks to Russia, Syria, and Turkey — all countries that have helped ISIS — while continuing to insult our Kurdish allies, who were key to this mission. His failure to grasp who are America’s friends and who are our adversaries means big security troubles down the road.
No surprise, Russia was number one on Trump’s thank-you list. The president admitted the Russians knew nothing about the operation. And they did nothing, except stay out of the way. Contrary to Trump’s claims, Russian forces in Syria were never interested in pursuing ISIS.
Russian TV called the Baghdadi operation “very strange” and accused the Americans of “creating” Baghdadi. “They were just laughing at Trump,” says the noted independent Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats. Yet Trump called the Russians “very good.”
As for Syria, Trump actually thanked a regime headed by war criminal Bashar al-Assad, who released hundreds of ISIS fighters from prison at the beginning of their rise to power. Assad has also let Iran take over much of Syria. Never mind.
But the worst was Trump’s praise for Turkey, a country notorious for letting ISIS fighters cross freely into Syria and get treated at Turkish hospitals.
“Turkey also has some explaining to do,” writes Brett McGurk, former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, in the Washington Post.
That’s because Baghdadi was found, not in ISIS’s traditional area of eastern Syria, but far away in western Syria, near the Turkish border and Turkish military outposts. This suggests that Turkish military intelligence knew Baghdadi’s location and didn’t share it.
Clearly, the U.S. military distrusted Ankara. They chose to launch the Baghdadi operation from hundreds of miles away in Iraq, rather than from nearby Turkey (a NATO partner), and reportedly they gave Turkey no advance notice. Yet Trump singled this ISIS enabler out for thanks, just the same.
And whose crucial help did he downplay? The Syrian Kurds, who, together with the Iraqi Kurds, reportedly provided more key intelligence help than did any country, and were key in locating Baghdadi. Syrian Kurdish leaders say they were working with U.S. forces on this mission for the past five months, and continued to do so even after Trump sold them out to Turkey early this month.
This is why the celebration of Baghdadi’s demise is undermined by Trump’s performance. The president is clearly ignorant of, or doesn’t care about, Turkey’s enabling of ISIS. Ditto for Russia’s and Syria’s indifference. He keeps repeating that they all hate ISIS. They don’t.
It’s the Kurds who hate ISIS, and who lost 11,000 men and women defeating the caliphate. It’s the Kurds who were willing to keep the ISIS network from reviving, backed by a minimal 1,000-troop U.S. presence that had taken almost no casualties. This was a small, safe investment to prevent an ISIS revival until Syria stabilized. It was not, as Trump has insisted, a commitment to stay for the next 200 years.
Instead, Trump, on a whim and a phone call to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pulled out U.S. troops and gave the Turks the green light to invade Syria. In his news conference, the president joked at how minimal the cost was to the Kurds. Again, his ignorance was shocking.
The Turkish invasion has created 200,000 Kurdish refugees, emptied Kurdish cities and towns, and forced the Kurds to turn reluctantly away from America toward Russia and Syria. Our troop withdrawal, along with the loss of Syrian Kurdish help, will deprive us of critical intelligence we need to keep any future ISIS resurgence down.
This is why so many special forces and CIA operatives in Syria, the forces Trump did deign to praise, were dismayed by the troop withdrawal. Some told journalists they felt their withdrawal had betrayed allies they will need in the future.
Some of these operatives also complained that Trump’s abrupt withdrawal order three weeks ago disrupted meticulous plans for the operation and made it more risky. Baghdadi’s death, some military and counterintelligence sources told the New York Times, “occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Mr. Trump’s actions.”
When a U.S. president praises our adversaries and undercuts our friends it doesn’t bode well for the future. That was the unnerving subtext that ran through Trump’s thumping self-celebration of Baghdadi’s death.