On January 3, america introduced the elimination of Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the chief of the so-called Islamic State (IS) throughout a counterterrorism raid in Atmeh, a city in Syria’s Idlib province near the Turkish border. In an handle to the nation, US President Joe Biden stated that the operation had taken “a significant terrorist chief off the battlefield,” including that particular forces had been used within the operation in an try to scale back civilian casualties.

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Why Now?

The raid comes after IS performed an assault on al-Sinaa jail within the northeastern metropolis of Hasakah in January in an try to interrupt free its fighters. Within the assault, a number of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters had been killed. In keeping with SDF officers, IS was planning the assault for six months. However, the US-backed SDF recaptured the jail a few week later. 

Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona suspects that the assault on the jail “was the catalyst that led to the choice to behave on what was clearly already identified location intelligence on … al-Qurayshi.” Francona, who served because the US navy attaché in Syria from 1992 to 1995, notes that “Over the previous few months, there was a rise in ISIS exercise — extra widespread and bolder in nature. This additionally comes at a time when Iranian-backed militias have additionally stepped up assaults on US forces in Syria and Iraq.”

Each Qurayshi and his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been eradicated in Idlib province, in areas beneath the management of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Beforehand, HTS was often known as Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda and initially aligned with IS. In 2013, nevertheless, it break up from IS and has been at struggle with the group since 2014. In 2016, it additionally broke relations with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). The next yr, JFS assumed its present iteration because it merged with different teams. 

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Throughout a lot of the previous decade, Idlib served as a hideout for extremists. In 2017, then-US envoy to the coalition preventing the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, acknowledged that “Idlib Province is the most important Al Qaeda secure haven since 9/11.” Following Baghdadi’s elimination in 2019, former US President Donald Trump prompt Baghdadi was in Idlib as a part of a plan to rebuild IS. Certainly, it was stunning to see Qurayshi hiding in Idlib as nicely. 

In keeping with David Lesch, professor of Center East Historical past at Trinity College in Texas and writer of “Syria: A Trendy Historical past,” “it appears unusual that al-Baghdadi and al-Qurayshi had been killed in [a] province largely managed by its rival HTS and overseen by Turkey, however alternatively it’s the solely space not beneath the management of the Syrian authorities and its allies or the US-supported SDF, all of whom are against ISIS.”

“Idlib is now house to 1000’s of IDPs, subsequently it was simpler for the 2 to mix in, reside secretively, and never be recognized as outsiders since most everybody in sure areas of the province are outsiders,” Lesch explains. “But they had been nonetheless discovered as a result of regardless of all this they lived in an space nonetheless teaming with enemies who had been clearly straight or not directly property to US intelligence.”

The latest US operation in Idlib, which was reportedly deliberate over a number of months, has been the most important of its form within the nation because the 2019 raid that eradicated Baghdadi. Though Qurayshi was much less charismatic than Baghdadi, the truth that he was focused within the US raid confirms his importance.

It’s price noting that Qurayshi was named because the chief of IS in 2019, following the demise of Baghdadi. Whereas IS known as on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to Qurayshi as the brand new “caliph,” it didn’t present a lot details about his bona fides. The usage of the title “Qurayshi” gave the impression to be an try and hint his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. This can be a tactic that was additionally used vis-à-vis Baghdadi with the purpose of legitimizing his management position. Qurayshi’s actual title is Amir Muhammad Stated Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla however he’s also called Hajji Abdullah and Abdullah Qaradash.  

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Because the US continues to create an impression that it’s minimizing its presence within the area, particularly following its withdrawal from Afghanistan final yr, the raid appears to have been used to reveal US reliability to reassure Washington’s companions. It additionally comes as a wanted win for Biden at a time when the Ukraine disaster stays unsolved. 

Nevertheless, whereas Qurayshi’s elimination is a optimistic growth, it could merely be a “symbolic victory,” as Sean Carberry suggests in The Hill. Whereas the operation towards Qurayshi could create inner chaos inside IS, finally, the phobia group is more likely to title a brand new chief and transfer on, which is what came about following Baghdadi’s assassination. Though IS was militarily defeated, the group has not been eradicated and stays a risk. In truth, there have been elevated indications, such because the assault on al-Sinaa jail, suggesting that the group is in a state of resurgence. The militants may also search to make use of the latest US raid to encourage revenge assaults. 

US Coverage in Syria

The Biden administration’s coverage vis-à-vis Syria appears to point that the official strategy shall be “markedly timid,” as Abdulrahman al-Masri and Reem Salahi counsel. It shouldn’t be stunning to be taught that Syria doesn’t represent a prime diplomatic precedence for President Biden. But whereas the US doesn’t wish to stay engaged in limitless regional wars, it appears to consider {that a} political settlement in war-torn Syria would solely empower President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would by no means again. 

Furthermore, the US and the Kurds are companions, and Washington wouldn’t wish to painting a picture that it has deserted those that have shouldered the combat towards the Islamic State. This was the general notion when Trump introduced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria in 2019, and Biden appears eager to treatment that controversial determination. 

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It’s price noting that in President Barack Obama’s tenure, Vice President Biden was one of many skeptics when it got here to what the US may obtain in Syria. However, it shouldn’t be taken as a on condition that as president, Biden could also be in favor of eradicating all US forces from the nation. For example, he criticized Trump’s determination to withdraw forces from Syria, saying it granted IS “a brand new lease on life.” In the identical yr, Biden additionally stated he helps preserving some forces in jap Syria for the foreseeable future. 

Center East knowledgeable and former US State Division analyst, Gregory Aftandilian doesn’t see the US leaving Syria anytime quickly. Aftandilian, who can also be a non-resident fellow at Arab Middle Washington DC, thinks “It’s uncertain [Biden] will do greater than the anti-ISIS marketing campaign and humanitarian help. In mild of the tried jail break in northeastern Syria he could put stress on some international locations to take again ISIS prisoners.”

For the US to play a task in stabilizing Syria, there must be a transparent technique. Sadly, for the time being, that technique is basically missing. Whereas the elimination of Qurayshi is a optimistic step, far more work must be finished to stabilize the nation.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Honest Observer’s editorial coverage.