Killing of ISIS Leader Won’t End Terrorist Threat, or Bring Peace to War-Ravaged Syria

Interview with Reese Erlich, award-winning journalist, columnist and author, conducted by Scott Harris

President Trump’s precipitous and reckless policy decisions on Syria in recent weeks have destabilized a region that had been fairly calm in recent years. When the president signed off on Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria by removing U.S. troops, he betrayed America’s Kurdish allies, caused 160,000 Syrian Kurds to flee their homes in the face of Turkish military attacks, and created a political vacuum in the region into which the Syrian Army, backed by Russia quickly stepped in.

In the midst of this chaos, a Kurdish informant working with American forces was able to locate ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leading to a U.S. raid that killed him in a compound in northwest Syria on Oct. 26.

While Trump initially tried to justify his Syrian troop withdrawal by saying he wanted to end endless wars and bring U.S. forces home, he quickly reversed himself by deploying some 500 American soldiers to Syrian oil fields controlled and operated by the Kurdish YPG militia group.  Trump went on to say that the U.S. would be keeping the oil in the war zone, considered a war crime under international law. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Reese Erlich, an award-winning journalist and author of many books, including “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect,” Here he talks about the continuing threat of ISIS after the death of al-Baghdadi and the future of war ravaged Syria.

REESE ERLICH: Well, it is a big deal that he was killed. He’s been reported killed several times before and as far as we know this time it finally happened, although there’s been no actual proof, but one has to assume from the circumstances that in fact he blew himself up as described by the U.S. But the thing to keep in mind is that he was never in recent days, a key element in the resurgence or the potential resurgence of the Islamic State or ISIS. He was isolated. He was not in regular communication with groups who are acting on their own internationally. Different groups decided they were going to affiliate with the name – it’s like a franchise operation, which is you don’t have centralized control. Each local group carries out actions that it decided to do. So his death is not going to make a significant shift in the power in the region.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Reese, I’ve read some commentary about Donald Trump’s plan to have the United States secure oil fields in the north of Syria, which by international law is considered a war crime – taking by force booty from another nation in the course of a conflict. Say a little bit more about that, if you would.

REESE ERLICH: Once Trump announced he was going to withdraw all U.S. troops, then lo and behold, Trump reverses himself and says, “Oh no, I didn’t really mean it. I’m just sending 500 troops back to control the oil rich areas of the oil wells in northeastern Syria.” Huh? This is part of his plan to bring the troops home? No, this is part of what the U.S. has been doing for decades in the region. It’s just a lot more obvious. The official excuses, “Oh, we’re going to seize the oil wells in order to protect them from being taken over by ISIS.” Hello. ISIS is defeated. Remember? That was the line two weeks ago. How is a defeated army going to take over the the oil fields? It’s a really thin and obvious excuse for saying, “Oh, and by the way, Trump wants the oil companies to come in and run it and send the profits, split the profits with the Kurds or some kind of harebrained scheme that he always did. He always managed to come up with.

Oil companies aren’t going to go into a war-torn area in a part of a country that’s actually Syrian territory. It’s sovereign territory of Syria. International oil companies don’t like to get involved in what it would obviously be banditry and a theft. So apparently the 500 troops are on their way back. The latest I read when this all started, there were 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Today, there are 2,000, so there’s actually an increase in the U.S. troop strength in Syria amidst this chaos. And nevertheless, the U.S. has alienated all its allies, ticked off the Kurds, ticked off the Europeans. Turkey is angry as heck and we’ve got more troops than when we started.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, Reese, just a final question. The Syrian civil war has cost the lives of an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people since 2011. What are the prospects that recent events will end this civil war and that Syria will be able to rebuild, and that peace will come to the vast majority of people who live in Syria, and the millions who’ve fled to other countries as refugees.

REESE ERLICH: Well, everybody certainly wants to see that happen. I kind of have to do a ledger. So on the positive side is, these ultra right-wing rebel groups have been defeated or seriously weakened like the Islamic State, like al Qaeda. The Syrian government in Damascus is reasserting control in much of the country. The SDF certainly continues to be a factor. And the negative side is the Idlib province – intense fighting going on there between the government and the various right-wing rebel groups. So we’re going to have to see what happens with that and we’ll have to see whether the Russian-Damascus-Iranian axis, if you will, allows for any kind of serious autonomy in the northern part of the country where the Kurds live. If they don’t, that’s gonna be a huge setback. I think in order to negotiate and to have genuine peace and be able to rebuild, they’re going to have to make some kind of concessions for Kurdish autonomy, even if it’s just allowing greater use of Kurdish language, media and things of that kind.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well, just extension of that question. Can Syria come together under the leadership of Bashar Al Assad who has been accused of many war crimes, atrocities upon atrocities by many human rights groups through the course of this civil war? Is he capable of bringing Syria back to life?

REESE ERLICH: Well, there are certainly many Syrians who don’t believe that, who believe that he’s beyond the pale. His dictatorship has got blood on its hands and they would never agree to live in a country, you know, ruled by Bashar al Assad. Others, including most of the external powers say, “Well, whatever we think of him, he’s the one guy who can probably hold Syria together at this moment. And we’ve got to live with him.” I think that’s the Turkish position. It’s I think probably the Israeli position. For sure it’s the position of the Iranians and the Russians, all of whom have troops in Syria. There’s the realpolitik argument and then there’s the moral argument. And you know, I think Syrians want to be able to live at home with some kind of stability and peace. They’re willing to back anybody who can actually provide that – (that) remains to be seen: Who will?

For more information, visit Reese Erlich’s Web Page at

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