One way or another, the threat the Islamic State poses, including to the U.S. homeland, is not going away. So one crucial question following Saturday’s successful military operation is whether the United States will retain the capacity to strike at terrorists thousands of miles away, given the radical shifts in deployments and alliances President Trump is undertaking. The details of the Baghdadi mission suggest that it may not.
U.S. officials said they were able to locate Mr. Baghdadi in northwestern Syria thanks in part to a disaffected Islamic State operative who began working with Kurdish Syrian forces. But Mr. Trump has ruptured the U.S. relationship with that group by pulling back U.S. forces to allow a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria this month. According to the New York Times, the Baghdadi mission was nearly derailed by the president’s precipitous action.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has doubled down on his partnership with Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the Baghdadi story underlines long-standing questions about Turkey’s readiness to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The terrorist was located in a compound just a few miles from the Turkish border, in an area where Turkey has observation posts. That U.S. forces neither used Turkey’s nearby Incirlik air base as a staging ground nor informed Ankara about the target of the operation in advance testifies to the unreliability of an ally Mr. Trump says he is counting on to prevent the Islamic State’s resurgence.
In announcing the strike, Mr. Trump thanked Russia; as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted, he informed the government of Vladimir Putin about the raid, but not Democratic congressional leaders. As a practical matter, Mr. Trump had little choice but to contact Moscow, which now holds a commanding strategic position in Syria thanks to Mr. Trump’s retreat. Mr. Trump claimed the Russians despise the Islamic State as much as Americans, but Mr. Putin has never made combating the group a priority. Instead, his aim is to restore control over Syria to the blood-soaked regime of Bashar al-Assad, which will benefit Iran as well as Russia.
In pulling U.S. forces back, Mr. Trump has repeatedly dismissed the importance of the conflicts in Syria: “I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!” he tweeted. For the moment, Mr. Trump has been persuaded to leave a small number of U.S. troops in Syria, nominally to secure oil fields. But if the president had his way, no American forces would be present in the region — and operations like that conducted this weekend would become impossible.