Last week, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly fled across the border from the town of Rawa in Iraq to the last bastion of the Islamic State in Syria, the border town of Al Bu-Kamal. On Thursday, the Syrian government and allied militias announced victory in Al Bu-Kamal, but by late Friday, the Islamic State mounted a counter-offensive and recaptured the northern neighborhoods of the town.
A question would naturally arise in the minds of curious observers of the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq that why would al-Baghdadi leave the relatively safer region of Anbar in Iraq for Al Bu-Kamal in Syria which is being heavily contested between the Syrian troops and the Islamic State jihadists? The Syrian troops and allied militias are mercilessly shelling the town and the counter-offensive of the jihadist group is equally fierce, with a large number of VBIEDs (vehicle-bound improvised explosive device) being used against the advancing troops.
The only conclusion that can be drawn from this suicidal gambit by al-Baghdadi is that the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State has become tired of living the life of a fugitive on the run and has decided to fight to death in the last major stronghold of the so-called caliphate that spanned one-third of Syria and Iraq only a couple of years ago, in order to die as a martyr and a create a legend around his persona even after his death.
Regarding the composition and command structure of the Islamic State, although al-Baghdadi has not publicly appointed a successor, but two of the closest aides who have emerged as his likely successors over the years are Iyad al-Obeidi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, the in charge of security. The latter had already reportedly been killed in an airstrike in April in al-Qaim region on Iraq’s border with Syria. Thus, the most likely successor of al-Baghdadi would be al-Obaidi. Both al-Jumaili and al-Obeidi had previously served as security officers in Iraq’s Baathist army under Saddam Hussein, and al-Obeidi is known to be the de facto deputy of al-Baghdadi.
More to the point, excluding al-Baghdadi and some of his hardline Islamist aides, the rest of Islamic State’s top leadership is comprised of Saddam era military and intelligence officials. Reportedly, hundreds of ex-Baathists constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of the Islamic State who plan all the operations and direct its military strategy. Thus, apart from training and arms that have been provided to the Sunni Arab militants in the training camps located in the Turkish and Jordanian border regions adjacent to Syria by the CIA in collaboration with Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence agencies, the only other factor which has contributed to the astounding success of the Islamic State from early 2013 to August 2014 is that its top cadres are comprised of professional military and intelligence officers from the Saddam era.
Moreover, it is an indisputable fact that morale and ideology play an important role in the battle, and well informed readers must also be aware that the Takfiri brand of most jihadists these days has directly been inspired by the puritanical Wahhabi-Salafi ideology of Saudi Arabia, but ideology alone is not sufficient to succeed in the battle. Looking at the Islamic State’s astounding gains in Syria and Iraq from early 2013 to August 2014, a question arises that where does its recruits get all the training and state-of-the-art weapons that are imperative not only for hit-and-run guerrilla warfare but also for capturing and holding large swathes of territory?
The Syria experts of foreign policy think tanks also appear to be quite ‘worried’ when the Islamic State overran Mosul that where did the Islamic State’s jihadists get all the sophisticated weapons and especially those fancy Toyota pickup trucks mounted with machine guns at the back, colloquially known as ‘the Technicals’ among the jihadists? According to a revelatory December 2013 news report from a newspaper affiliated with the UAE government which supports the Syrian opposition, it is clearly mentioned that along with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other military gear, the Saudi regime also provides machine gun-mounted Toyota pick-up trucks to every batch of five jihadists who have completed their training in the training camps located in the border regions of Jordan.
Once those militants cross over to Daraa and Quneitra in southern Syria from the Jordan-Syria border, then those Toyota pickup trucks can easily travel to the Islamic State’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, it is clearly spelled out in the report that Syrian militants get arms and training through a secret command center known as the Military Operations Center (MOC) based in the intelligence headquarters’ building in Amman, Jordan that has been staffed by high-ranking military officials from 14 countries, including the US, European nations, Israel and the Gulf Arab States to wage a covert war against the government in Syria.
Notwithstanding, in order to create a semblance of objectivity and fairness, the American policymakers and analysts are always willing to accept the blame for the mistakes of the distant past that have no bearing on the present, however, any fact that impinges on their present policy is conveniently brushed aside. In the case of the creation of the Islamic State, for instance, the US policy analysts are willing to concede that invading Iraq back in 2003 was a mistake that radicalized the Iraqi society, exacerbated sectarian divisions and gave birth to an unrelenting Sunni insurgency against the heavy handed and discriminatory policies of the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government.
Similarly, the war on terror era political commentators also ‘generously’ accept the fact that the Cold War era policy of nurturing al-Qaeda and myriads of Afghan so-called freedom fighters against the erstwhile Soviet Union was a mistake, because all those fait accompli have no bearing on their present policy. The corporate media’s spin doctors conveniently forget, however, that the creation of the Islamic State and myriads of other Sunni Arab jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq has as much to do with the unilateral invasion of Iraq back in 2003 under the Bush administration as it has been the legacy of the Obama administration’s policy of funding, arming, training and internationally legitimizing the Sunni Arab militants against the Shi’a-dominated Syrian regime since 2011-onward in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East region.
In fact, the proximate cause behind the rise of the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam and numerous other Sunni Arab militant groups in Syria and Iraq has been the Obama Administration’s policy of intervention through proxies in Syria. The border between Syria and Iraq is highly porous and poorly guarded, and Washington’s policy of nurturing militants against the Assad regime in Syria was bound to have its blowback in Iraq, sooner or later. Therefore, as soon as the Islamic State consolidated its gains in Syria, it overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in early 2014, from where the US had withdrawn its troops only a couple of years ago in December 2011.