28 Oct 2019

For Trump, Baghdadi death a signature moment, but troubles remain

2:51 pm on 28 October 2019

By Steve Holland for Reuters

For US President Donald Trump, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a signature achievement that may help quell criticism from his own ranks, but it's unlikely to offer much relief from Democratic-led scrutiny of his dealings with Ukraine.

US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office before signing an executive order for sanctions on Iran's supreme leader.

US politicians, especially Republicans, have praised Donald Trump after he announced a successful mission into northern Syria to find Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who detonated a suicide vest as he was pursued by US forces. Photo: AFP

The raid could not have come at a better time for Mr Trump, who is facing an impeachment investigation by Democrats in the US House of Representatives who say his attempt to persuade Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden was an abuse of power and may have put national security at risk.

He has also come under withering criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike for an abrupt decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria, which cleared the way for a Turkish invasion against America's Kurdish allies in the area.

"I don't think it alters the trajectory of our politics in any way necessarily, but without question, for the president it's a huge win. There's no other way to spin it," said Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution scholar who advised Republican Marco Rubio's presidential campaign in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Mr Trump, who is up for re-election in November 2020, will be able to trumpet the successful raid on the campaign trail as another reason why he should not be thrown out of office, in addition to his tough stance on illegal immigration and his record on the economy.

He could not help but tease the win in a typically grandiose fashion: "Something very big has just happened!" he tweeted on Saturday night, apparently only minutes after US special forces had safely landed back at their base.

Aware of the political capital suddenly at his disposal, Mr Trump delivered the news on Sunday from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room standing before battle flags that had been brought from the Oval Office for the occasion.

Mr Trump offered vivid and sometimes grisly details about the raid and the Islamic State leader's demise, which he claimed was "bigger" than the 2011 US killing of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Afterwards, the White House deployed top national security aides to the Sunday talk shows to discuss the raid and its importance for national security.

The news prompted an outpouring of praise from senior Republicans, including those such as close Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham who had strongly criticised the president's decision to withdraw from Syria.

"This is a game changer," Mr Graham told reporters during a second briefing at the White House. "This is a moment where we should all be proud of our American military and our intelligence community. This is a moment where President Trump's worst critics should say, 'well done Mr. President.'"

Senate majority leader Republican Mitch McConnell, who also strongly condemned the troop withdrawal, said on Sunday he applauded the news and was grateful "to President Trump and his team for their leadership".

Even Senator Mitt Romney, Mr Trump's fiercest Republican critic, took to Twitter to thank the President for sending Baghdadi to "hell."

Republican senator Lindsey Graham.

Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham says the IS leader's death is a game changer for the president. Photo: AFP

No strategy for the Middle East - critics

The good news brought only a brief truce with Democrats who hope to beat Mr Trump in 2020 if they cannot remove him from office via impeachment, however.

Several senior Democrats, including Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, congratulated Mr Trump.

But many were quick to point out that Baghdadi's death did not put an end to Islamic State and that Mr Trump had no strategy for the region. They also called out the president for breaking with tradition by failing to brief the full "Gang of Eight" Congressional leaders ahead of the raid.

Mr Trump pointedly said that he did not tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his chief Democratic rival who has played a leading role in the impeachment drama, about the plan because of concerns the information would leak and put American soldiers at risk.

"The House must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration's overall strategy in the region," Ms Pelosi said in a statement in which she praised the armed forces.

The takedown of Baghdadi is unlikely to distract lawmakers from the impeachment probe, which has gained momentum following a number of damaging witness testimonies which Republicans are increasingly struggling to rebut.

Speaking to reporters following a top US diplomat's closed-door testimony on Wednesday, John Thune, the Senate's No 2 Republican, said the picture emerging from the investigation was "not a good one," a possible sign that Republican support for Mr Trump might be faltering.

"In years past you could see how this would pause the political rhetoric for at least a few days," said the Hoover Institution's Mr Chen. "I don't see that happening this time."

Al-Baghdadi's death may not quell tide of militant groups - expert

The killing of the leader of Islamic State is a huge win for the Americans, but it may not be the end of ISIS, says an international affairs expert.

Waikato University Professor Alexander Gillespie said it was a triumph for the Americans.

"To knock the head off the snake is really quite something - but there will be other snakes. But, this is still something that should be acknowledged and America should be acknowledged for the great work it's done in this area because this man was a terrible person," he said.

"He led a regime that committed terrible crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes against culture. There's nothing that these people did not do."

Prof Gillespie said Islamic State's future was now uncertain, although unlikely to be over.

"When the leader of Al-Qaeda was killed other people turned up within the next few months and as they kept getting knocked off the peg other people replaced them," he said.

"With ISIS, it'll be harder because they've lost territory and a lot of political power. I think they could survive but what's more likely is that another kind of jihadi group could emerge from the ashes in their place.

"Terrorism is tidal - it rises and it falls. The peak of terrorism in terms of attacks and deaths in recent years was 2014 but each year as Islamic State lost territory the attacks and deaths declined ... but unless you address the basic considerations for why these groups emerge in the first place something else will come in its path."

-Reuters / RNZ

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