On January 3, the United States announced the elimination of Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, the leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS) during a counterterrorism raid in Atmeh, a town in Syria’s Idlib province close to the Turkish border. In an address to the nation, US President Joe Biden said that the operation had taken “a major terrorist leader off the battlefield,” adding that special forces were used in the operation in an attempt to reduce civilian casualties.
The raid comes after IS conducted an attack on al-Sinaa prison in the northeastern city of Hasakah in January in an attempt to break free its fighters. In the assault, several Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters were killed. According to SDF officials, IS was planning the attack for six months. Nevertheless, the US-backed SDF recaptured the prison about a week later.
Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona suspects that the attack on the prison “was the catalyst that led to the decision to act on what was obviously already known location intelligence on … al-Qurayshi.” Francona, who served as the US military attaché in Syria from 1992 to 1995, notes that “Over the past few months, there has been an increase in ISIS activity — more widespread and bolder in nature. This also comes at a time when Iranian-backed militias have also stepped up attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq.”
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Both Qurayshi and his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, were eliminated in Idlib province, in areas under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Previously, HTS was known as Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda and initially aligned with IS. In 2013, however, it split from IS and has been at war with the group since 2014. In 2016, it also broke relations with al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS). The following year, JFS assumed its current iteration as it merged with other groups.
During much of the past decade, Idlib served as a hideout for extremists. In 2017, then-US envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, stated that “Idlib Province is the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11.” Following Baghdadi’s elimination in 2019, former US President Donald Trump suggested Baghdadi was in Idlib as part of a plan to rebuild IS. Indeed, it was surprising to see Qurayshi hiding in Idlib as well.
According to David Lesch, professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in Texas and author of “Syria: A Modern History,” “it seems strange that al-Baghdadi and al-Qurayshi were killed in [a] province largely controlled by its rival HTS and overseen by Turkey, but on the other hand it is the only area not under the control of the Syrian government and its allies or the US-supported SDF, all of whom are opposed to ISIS.”
“Idlib is now home to thousands of IDPs, therefore it was easier for the two to blend in, live secretively, and not be identified as outsiders since most everyone in certain areas of the province are outsiders,” Lesch explains. “Yet they were still found because despite all this they lived in an area still teaming with enemies who were obviously directly or indirectly assets to US intelligence.”
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The recent US operation in Idlib, which was reportedly planned over several months, has been the largest of its kind in the country since the 2019 raid that eliminated Baghdadi. Although Qurayshi was less charismatic than Baghdadi, the fact that he was targeted in the US raid confirms his importance.
It is worth noting that Qurayshi was named as the leader of IS in 2019, following the death of Baghdadi. While IS called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to Qurayshi as the new “caliph,” it did not provide much information about his bona fides. The use of the name “Qurayshi” seemed to be an attempt to trace his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad. This is a tactic that was also used vis-à-vis Baghdadi with the aim of legitimizing his leadership role. Qurayshi’s real name is Amir Muhammad Said Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla but he is also known as Hajji Abdullah and Abdullah Qaradash.
As the US continues to create an impression that it is minimizing its presence in the region, especially following its withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, the raid seems to have been used to demonstrate US reliability to reassure Washington’s partners. It also comes as a needed win for Biden at a time when the Ukraine crisis remains unsolved.
However, while Qurayshi’s elimination is a positive development, it may simply be a “symbolic victory,” as Sean Carberry suggests in The Hill. While the operation against Qurayshi may create internal chaos within IS, ultimately, the terror group is likely to name a new leader and move on, which is what took place following Baghdadi’s assassination. Although IS was militarily defeated, the group has not been eliminated and remains a threat. In fact, there have been increased indications, such as the attack on al-Sinaa prison, suggesting that the group is in a state of resurgence. The militants might also seek to use the recent US raid to encourage revenge attacks.
US Policy in Syria
The Biden administration’s policy vis-à-vis Syria seems to indicate that the official approach will be “markedly timid,” as Abdulrahman al-Masri and Reem Salahi suggest. It should not be surprising to learn that Syria does not constitute a top diplomatic priority for President Biden. Yet while the US does not want to remain engaged in endless regional wars, it seems to believe that a political settlement in war-torn Syria would only empower President Bashar al-Assad, whom Washington would never back.
Moreover, the US and the Kurds are partners, and Washington would not want to portray an image that it has abandoned those who have shouldered the fight against the Islamic State. This was the overall perception when Trump announced the withdrawal of US forces from Syria in 2019, and Biden seems keen to remedy that controversial decision.
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It is worth noting that during President Barack Obama’s tenure, Vice President Biden was one of the skeptics when it came to what the US could achieve in Syria. Nevertheless, it should not be taken as a given that as president, Biden may be in favor of removing all US forces from the country. For instance, he criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria, saying it granted IS “a new lease on life.” In the same year, Biden also said he supports keeping some forces in eastern Syria for the foreseeable future.
Middle East expert and former US State Department analyst, Gregory Aftandilian doesn’t see the US leaving Syria anytime soon. Aftandilian, who is also a non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, thinks “It is doubtful [Biden] will do more than the anti-ISIS campaign and humanitarian aid. In light of the attempted prison break in northeastern Syria he may put pressure on some countries to take back ISIS prisoners.”
For the US to play a role in stabilizing Syria, there needs to be a clear strategy. Unfortunately, at the moment, that strategy is largely lacking. While the elimination of Qurayshi is a positive step, much more work needs to be done to stabilize the country.