Following a week of military setbacks against the Islamic State in Iraq, President Barack Obama notched a high-risk, high-reward win after U.S. Special Operations forces he sent into Syria successfully killed a senior leader of the organization, captured his wife, and liberated an 18-year-old Yazidi woman from slavery.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter claimed that Saturday’s operation delivered a “significant blow” to the Islamic State, which is known variously as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh. It was the first successful raid conducted by American commandos in Syria this year, and demonstrated Obama’s willingness to authorize covert operations despite a series of failed rescue operations during the past year in Syria and Yemen.
It also showed that the White House was willing to send combat troops into Syria — even if only temporarily — despite frequently promising to keep American forces out of the fighting there. The Obama administration has sent hundreds of U.S. special forces to the Middle East to train “moderate” anti-government Syrian rebels, but publicly vowed that there would be no American boots on the ground in either war zone.
Indeed, the fact that the White House gave the green light for an operation into Syria, combined with reports that the Delta operators removed a substantial trove of intelligence material from the site, including computers and other documents, might indicate that the raid could be the first in a series of such missions.
Delta has had a task force in Iraqi Kurdistan since at least last year with a mission of trying to find Islamic State leaders to kill or capture. During the war against the Islamic State’s predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, Delta and the other components of the military’s Joint Special Operations Command developed a system called “F3EAD” — for Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate — in which strike forces would raid objectives such as militant safe houses not only to kill or capture the militants but to gain as much material of intelligence value as possible. By sucking information out of hard drives and cell phones, as well as quickly interrogating anyone taken prisoner, Delta and other JSOC forces were able to launch several missions a night, each based on intelligence gained in the previous raid. That dynamic could repeat itself here.
The operation drew rave reviews from Democratic congressional leaders like Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat in the Senate Intelligence Committee, who characterized it as “a picture perfect raid.”
“It is the kind of one-two punch that we should do more of,” Feinstein said in Sunday morning in an interview on ABC’s This Week.
Feinstein voiced grave concern about the spread of the Islamic State, which claims a presence in some 12 countries in North Africa and the Middle East. “It is an impressive fighting force, it occupies territory, it runs a government and most importantly it is evil,” she said. “We have to get very serious about what were going to do not only to contain but to eradicate this force.”
But Republican leaders also praised the operation.
“I think the discovery of these electronic records and document is probably by far the greatest achievement because now we can actually look at the organization itself, where the tentacles reach, both within Syria and outside Syria,” Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, told Fox News Sunday. “The best defense to defend the homeland is a good offense. We need to take them out wherever they exist. I think these documents and computer records will help us to do that.”
The successful raid into Syria ends what had been a dispiriting string of failed missions there. Last year, Delta Force commandos launched a raid in northern Syria in search of James Foley, an American reporter who was held hostage by the Islamic State. The group subsequently executed Foley. Last November, U.S. Special Operations forces carried out two raids in search of American photojournalist Luke Somers, who was executed by his captors as the elite forces swept into the compound where he’d been held alongside South African aid worker Pierre Korkie. Korkie was also killed.
The latest operation came at the end of a week in which the Islamic State showed that it has withstood months of American-led airstrikes and remained a highly-capable fighting force. The group captured key government buildings in the strategic city of Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and stalled an Iraqi government offensive in the area. On Sunday, the Islamic state controlled all of Ramadi, according to CNN, which reported that the last Iraqi security forces withdrew from a critical military base on the western end of the city.
In a press statement, Carter said he had ordered Special Operation forces based in Iraq to capture Abu Sayyaf, who helped manage the movement’s illicit, oil, gas and financial operations, and his wife, Umm Sayyaf, a suspected member of the Islamic State who “played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities.” Sayyaf was killed after he “engaged U.S. forces,” Carter said.
No American personnel were killed or injured in the operation. The team returned to Iraq with Sayyaf’s wife, who was placed in U.S. military detention in Iraq, and the Yazidi woman, who “we intend to reunite with her family as soon as feasible,” Carter said. The woman, he said, “appears to have been held as a slave by the couple.”
The White House insisted that the U.S. did not carry out the operation in concert with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. The United States has long denied that it coordinates its air campaigns against the Islamic State in Syria directly with Assad, who the White House has said must leave power to end his country’s brutal civil war. But officials say that Iraq has served as a go between between the two countries, who are de facto allies in the fight against ISIS.
“The U.S. government did not coordinate with the Syrian regime, nor did we advise them in advance of this operation,” Bernadette Meehan, the National Security Council spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We have warned the Assad regime not to interfere with our ongoing efforts against ISIL inside of Syria.”
The operation has already generated some controversy, with some critics arguing that the administration was exaggerating the importance of Abu Sayyaf in the hierarchy of the Islamic State to suggest that killing such a relatively unknown figure marked a more significant victory against the group than it had actually been.
For the most part, though, the strike brought unusual praise from many of the White House’s normal Republican opponents on Capitol Hill, who urged the administration to use intelligence gleaned from the operation to mount new strikes against ISIS.
“U.S. forces must now use the intelligence captured at the terrorist compound in Syria and gathered from Umm Sayyaf to keep hitting this deadly and savage enemy,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But Royce reserved his praise for the forces that carried out the raid, not to their Democratic commander-in-chief who had authorized the operation. “Congratulations to all of our military personnel involved in this dangerous mission,” he said. “Thanks to their gutsy mission, a key ISIS leader who directed the group’s financing is out of the game and another terrorist has been captured.”