Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 30 Issue 7
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
CENTCOM’s killing of a senior Islamic State Syria leader stressed the US commitment to fighting the terrorist threats and emphasised the persistent instability in the Middle East related to jihadist and terrorist activities.
On April 17th, 2023, the United States Central Command forces confirmed the killing of Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali, a senior Islamic State Syria leader and operational planner responsible for organising terror attacks in the Middle East and Europe.
CENTCOM confirmed that the operation was launched after Intelligence discovered that the Islamic State planned to kidnap officials abroad to leverage the terrorist organisation’s initiatives.
Previously, according to a CENTCOM press release, we acknowledged that the US Central Command forces conducted a unilateral helicopter raid in northern Syria in the early morning of April 17th, 2023, targeting Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji.
Extensive planning went into this operation to ensure its successful execution. Neither US troops were wounded, nor US helicopters were damaged, and no civilians were killed or injured.
CENTCOM and the United States’ interests in Syria
The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) is conducting operations against the Islamic State in Syria. These operations rely heavily on local forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces. The operations target Islamic State members responsible for planning attacks inside Iraq and Syria, including plans for attacks on the Islamic State detention centres.
In March 2023, CENTCOM partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces in nine operations which resulted in the killing of two Islamic State members and the detention of eleven terrorist operatives.
CENTCOM operations in Syria aim to pressure the Islamic State in Syria by relying heavily on local forces such as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Additionally, CENTCOM is undertaking a realignment to meet and defeat future threats, with the first goal being to complete major combat operations in Iraq and Syria and bring the campaign to defeat the Islamic State to a responsible close.
The United States has several interests in Syria, including eliminating the threat posed by terrorist groups, preventing the use and proliferation of chemical weapons, supporting local ceasefires, stabilising the area, providing humanitarian aid and access, and avoiding the affirmation of external actors such as Iran or Russia.
Washington is the largest single donor to the humanitarian response in Syria, providing over $12.2 billion in humanitarian assistance. The White House has also provided more than $500 million in humanitarian aid and has committed to an additional $250 million in transition support.
The United States has been involved in Syria since the start of the civil war, and its policy has evolved. The White House initially supported the opposition and rebel fighters but shifted its focus to fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. The United States has also been involved in diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, including supporting the UN-led peace process and participating in talks with Russia and other countries.
Washington has maintained a military presence in Syria to support counterterrorism efforts and prevent the Islamic State’s resurgence. The United States has also conducted airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to attacks on US personnel and facilities in Iraq. The White House has faced criticism for its involvement in Syria, with some arguing that its policy is too fuzzy and not doing enough to support the opposition and rebel fighters.
The Islamic State in Syria: a geopolitical scenario
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, rose to prominence in Syria in 2014 during the ongoing civil war. This extremist militant group aims to create a caliphate or Islamic state that stretches across Iraq and Syria, and their ideology is rooted in an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The roots of the Islamic State in Syria can be traced back to the early days of the Syrian civil war. As the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad clamped down on peaceful protests, some opposition groups began to take up arms against the government. These groups were later joined by militants who saw an opportunity to establish an Islamic state.
The Islamic State was born from the merger of several extremist groups, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2013. The group quickly gained power and influence through its military victories and ability to control territory and resources.
Islamic State’s ideology is based on using violence and terror to achieve its goals. The group seeks to spread its extremist ideology across the region and beyond. The Islamic State imposes a brutal form of Sharia law on the people living under its control, and its methods of punishment are often brutal, including beheadings, amputations, and stoning. The terrorist group also uses social media to spread its propaganda and recruit new fighters worldwide.
The impact of the Islamic State on the Syrian conflict has been significant. The group has fought against the Syrian government and other opposition groups, leading to a complex and fluid competition in which multiple actors are vying for power.
The Islamic State has displaced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, causing a humanitarian crisis spilling over into neighbouring countries. The group’s territorial gains have given it control over crucial resources such as oil, which has helped to fund its operations and make it a formidable force in the region.
Efforts to fight against the Islamic State have been ongoing since the group gained power. The US-led coalition has carried out thousands of airstrikes against the Islamic State and supported local forces on the ground. With the help of Russia and Iran, the Syrian government has also fought against the group. Other countries in the region have also joined the fight, including Turkey.
In 2023, the Islamic State in Syria will likely be a shadow of its former self. The group’s self-proclaimed caliphate, once covering vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, has been torn apart by years of warfare and intense international pressure. Currently, remnants of the group may continue to operate in small pockets of territory.
One potential outcome in 2023 is that the remaining Islamic State fighters will be forced to go underground, either joining other militant groups or forming their cells in the hope of carrying out sporadic attacks. This outcome would pose serious security threats to the region and the world, as the group has shown in the past that it can carry out devastating terrorist attacks.
CENTCOM’s killing of a senior Islamic State Syria leader emphasised the US activities and interests in this Middle Eastern country.
Indeed, Syria has a strategic regional role thanks to its geographic location, political influence, and military capabilities. The country is located at the crossroads of major trade routes in the region and has been a key player in the political landscape of the Middle East. Its geopolitical position has made Syria a focal point for regional and global powers, with international actors looking to influence the country’s future.
Syria’s political influence in the region has been significant, particularly during the Cold War era when the country aligned itself with the Soviet Union. Damascus has also played a crucial role in regional affairs, particularly in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Syria has steadfastly supported the Palestinian cause and has been involved in various peace initiatives to resolve the conflict. The country’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon has also been instrumental in shaping the balance of power in the region.
The Syrian conflict has had significant implications for the region, particularly regarding the refugee crisis and the rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State.
Since its strategic role, the United States and Russia have competed in Syria, with Russia intervening militarily to support the Assad regime. In contrast, the US has supported opposition groups and maintained a military presence in the country to fight against the Islamic State.
Washington has accused Moscow of using chemical weapons and has imposed sanctions on Russia for its actions. The United States has also expressed concern about Russia’s influence in the Middle East and its efforts to challenge US interests.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict and its impact in the international arena, due to Western sanctions against the Russian Federation, it is possible to foresee a prolonged confrontation between Moscow and Washington in Syria and, generally speaking, in the Middle East.
In this context, geopolitical competition, regional and international actors’ strategies, sectarianism, weak governance, and local conflicts might continue creating a fertile ground for jihadist propaganda and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Without addressing these root causes, new extremist groups will likely emerge, posing similar threats to regional stability and global security.