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With Baghdadi gone, a political battle is just beginning

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is gone, like his short-lived Islamic caliphate. But the battle to claim credit for his death is just beginning.

President Donald Trump rightfully gets to trumpet the special forces raid that killed the ISIS leader in Syria, just as he would have carried the can had it been a disaster. Democrats have been slow to praise, but they might remember how they embraced the killing of Osama bin Laden during Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. “Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive,” then-vice president, now 2020 candidate, Joe Biden used to crow.

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Baghdadi’s death could not have come at a better time, offering Republicans rare good news to rally around, amid devastating revelations from the impeachment inquiry and fury over Trump’s desertion of the Syrian Kurds. Given the President’s propensity for spinning tall tales, the raid — which he has already likened to a movie — will likely take on even more mythical proportions in the months to come, letting the President play the ruthless, square-jawed war leader.

But in the end, the political impact is likely to be negligible. Trump so polarizes opinion that the raid is unlikely to move many votes next year. Obama’s approval ratings ticked up for just a few weeks after the far more notorious bin Laden’s death, before settling back to normal. And while any rise in Trump’s ratings could be significant since public opinion is crucial to shaping the outcome of the impeachment fight, it’s a good bet that the honeymoon will soon be drowned out by Trump’s impeachment misery — and his own compulsion to ignite new controversies.

‘As though you were watching a movie’

Trump on Sunday announced the raid on Baghdadi, graphically describing the “whimpering” ISIS leader running into a tunnel with several children, pursued by dogs, before detonating a suicide vest. The President seemed pleased with the technology that allowed him to watch the operation from afar, describing it as like “watching a movie.”

What the world said

The Baghdadi raid sent the political spin machines of key players in the Middle East into overdrive, as they sought to claim credit — or dismiss — the notorious terrorist’s demise.

“Not a big deal!”
In response to a Trump tweet hinting at Baghdadi’s death, Iranian telecommunications minister Mohammad-Javad Azairi Jahromi tweeted, “Not a big deal! You just killed your creature.”

“The Iraqi National Intelligence Service…was able to locate the den”
An Iraqi Defense Ministry statement was swift to credit its national intelligence service for pinpointing Baghdadi’s location.
 
“Absolutely no operational significance”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov dismissed the raid’s impact  and cast doubt that it even happened, saying Russia had not observed US airstrikes in the region. That’s in sharp contrast to Trump’s announcement that Russia had helped by “opening up” Russian-held areas to allow the US flyover. 
 
“The result of the close cooperation between the SDF and the United States of America”
A statement released by Syrian Democratic Forces General Command statement emphasized that the US-SDF relationship was key to the raid’s success, and added a dose of blame for Turkey, accusing “Turkish aggression” of delaying the operation for more than a month. 
 
“We had some help — from outside partners”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was noticeably more circumspect on the Kurdish militias’ role in the operation. Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper, he refused to directly name the Kurds in association with the raid.
 
“It’s a good day for the good guys”
A senior Turkish official welcomed the raid, according to CNN’s Gul Tuysuz in Istanbul, though over in Washington, DC, a US official told CNN’s Ryan Browne that Turkey played no role in the operation.
 
“As though you were watching a movie”
Trump repeatedly praised the operation and its special forces operatives in a Q&A after his announcement of Baghdadi’s death. He also thanked Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the Syrian Kurds, and warned, “We have others in sight. Very bad ones.”

“The Russians but not top Congressional Leadership were notified in advance”
That’s Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, noting that the House had not been briefed about the raid.

Meanwhile…

While Washington obsesses over the impact of Baghdadi’s death on US politics, other actors in the region must now decide their next move. Here’s what they might be thinking:

For Trump: On the face of it, the raid is an argument for the US to stay on in Syria to gather intelligence and strike ISIS at will. But the successful operation seems more likely to confirm Trump’s view that the US should declare victory and leave.

For ISIS: Baghdadi was an important symbol, but it’s not clear if he was still pulling all the strings in ISIS. History shows that leaders perish and groups evolve — and could reconfigure to fill vacuums like the one emerging in Syria. Right now, ISIS has an incentive to show it’s still a potent force.

For Russia Turkey, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: Each hope that Trump will lose interest in Syria now that he’s pocketed a face-saving victory to cover an American retreat. This could be a good time to lock in more strategically significant gains.

The Kurds: The SDF said the raid followed five months of intelligence cooperation with the US to pinpoint Baghdadi’s location. The administration’s unwillingness to confirm their role may reveal Trump’s view on their relationship — and on how much the US owes its former allies.

CNN