In the past year alone, six ISIS commanders have been targeted and killed in Turkish-occupied North and East Syria, with the latest operation by the US anti-ISIS mission coming just this week. These men, it bears repeating, are not sheltering in some distant valley or cave system. They are living and operating freely and openly in regions controlled by Turkey – a nominal member of the International Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Indeed, they are in towns and villages scattered along the Turkish border, right under the nose of NATO’s second-largest army, located in the regions Turkey has seized in successive, destructive invasions and occupations of primarily-Kurdish land in northern Syria.
We all remember when the USA killed ISIS’ one-time potentate Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, sheltered in a Syrian region where Turkey is the dominant state actor. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) provided the crucial intelligence that enabled that raid to take place, offering more assistance than all other international powers combined, American officials told the New York Times. And yet they were hardly thanked by then-president Donald Trump, focused on placating his Turkish allies.
Worse, that vital attack on the ISIS emir was delayed for weeks due to Turkey’s military operation against the Kurdish-led autonomous regions, as US troops withdrew from the country and the SDF was forced to withdraw troops from its anti-ISIS mission to focus on fending off Turkish tanks and warplanes with the light arms left at their disposal. Hundreds of ISIS members escaped in the chaos.
The same story repeated itself eight months ago, when Baghdadi’s replacement Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi was killed in virtually identical circumstances. Baghadi was two and a half kilometres from the Turkish border – Qurashi, just a few hundred metres. Turkey’s military interventions in Syria were meant to create a ‘safe zone’. As the SDF and other international observers pointed out, zones of Turkish control in Syria clearly were safe – so long as you were an ISIS commander, and not one of the hundreds of thousands of civilians forced to flee the violent excesses of Turkey’s proxies.
These days, the flagrant presence of top ISIS brass in regions under Turkish control scarcely makes the news any more. Three months ago, ISIS’ top man in Syria was killed in the zone seized and occupied by Turkey during the 2019 ‘Peace Spring’ operation, while just this week another commander was tracked down and assassinated in the same region. The latest drone strike was not a headline anywhere, reported for the most part by wire services and the special-interest Syrian press.
The operation coincided with the three-year anniversary of ‘Peace Spring’. Remember what was happening in the cities of Tel Abyad and Sere Kaniye prior to their occupation, and consider what is happening now. Fields which once formed some of the widest expanses of cooperative agriculture in northern Syria have been plundered. Their profits now go to fund Turkish-backed militias known to have recruited dozens of former ISIS members. Towns which were the heart of brave attempts at tolerance, mutual understanding and direct democracy have lost their cosmopolitan, neighbourly character. Militas fight over the profits from checkpoints and looting, terrorize the locals, and have driven Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and other minorities from their homes. And men like slain ISIS commander Mustafa al-Arouda are able to race through the wasted land on their motorbikes openly, feeling themselves safe in the shadow of Erdoğan’s autocratic, Islamist state.
Six strikes in a year is, in a sense, a lot. But the figure rather illustrates the fact that the US and its allies can never hope to eradicate ISIS through scattered surgical operations. Turkey continues to bankroll, arm and manipulate a network of Islamist and criminal militias throughout northern Syria, with tens of thousands of gunmen ruling a patchwork of fiefdoms. The US partnership with the SDF serves, temporarily, to keep Turkey from continuing its stop-start campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Syrian Kurds. But until the US and other global allies force Turkey out of northern Syria and allow the Kurdish-led administration to resume its brave attempts at establishing tolerance, peace and democracy, any talk of an ‘anti-ISIS mission’ is a joke.