How did slain ISIS chief Baghdadi manage to hide out so close to Turkey?

(Updates with Trump's comments in fourth paragraph.)

When President Donald Trump announced on Sunday that U.S. special forces had killed the fugitive Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a raid northwest Syria, he made sure to thank Turkey.

But questions remain over whether, and how, Turkey participated in a major intelligence operation that took place a mere 5 km from its border.

In a statement welcoming Baghdadi’s death on Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made no mention of Turkish involvement in the operation and a tweet from the Turkish Defence Ministry only spoke vaguely about information exchange prior to the strike.

"Turkey - we dealt with them.  They know we were going in.  We flew over some territory.  They were terrific.  No problem," Trump said in response to a question on Turkey's role in the operation. "You know, they could start shooting, and then we will take them out."

But Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman quoted a U.S. official as saying Turkey’s involvement was limited, and said Turkey had not been informed the target was Baghdadi “due to concerns the information would be compromised.”

This comes in stark contrast to statements from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which lauded an operation it said it had spent five months collaborating with U.S. intelligence to help set up.

Turkey sees the SDF and its allies as a terrorist organisation due to its links to outlawed Kurdish groups in Turkey, and launched a military operation to drive Syrian Kurdish-led groups from its borders this month.

But the SDF’s involvement in the operation against Baghdadi, corroborated by U.S. officials’ comments to the New York Times, has underlined the group’s importance as partners in the fight against ISIS.

Turkey, meanwhile, appears to have been left in the dark – the operation was launched not from the main U.S. regional airbase in İncirlik, some 140 km from Baghdadi's compound in southern Turkey, but from 650 km away in northern Iraq.

Baghdadi was found and killed near the village of Barisha in Idlib, northwest Syria, mostly controlled by a range of Syrian rebel Islamist militias backed by Turkey. Turkish troops are also present in Idlib province and regularly pass between the two countries. Barisha is about 12 km by road from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing that leads to Turkey’s Hatay province.

“Turkey also has some explaining to do,” said Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy for the global anti-ISIS coalition, in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

“Baghdadi was found not in his traditional areas of eastern Syria or western Iraq, but rather in northwestern Syria — just a few miles from Turkey’s border, and in Idlib province, which has been protected by a dozen Turkish military outposts since early 2018,” he said.

Through an agreement reached with Russia in September last year, Turkey agreed to take control of a “de-escalation zone” in the province, setting up observation points to do so.

Responding to the first reports of the strike on Sunday, many analysts expressed surprise that Baghdadi was found in an area dominated by groups that have a deep enmity towards ISIS, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an umbrella organisation of fighters from jihadist groups that includes those with links to al Qaeda.

The New York Times reported that the ISIS leader had “sought shelter in the home of Abu Mohammed Salama, a commander of another extremist group, Hurras al-Din.”

“The commander’s fate in that raid, and the precise nature of his relationship to Mr. al-Baghdadi, are not clear,” it said.

Hurras al-Din, another al Qaeda offshoot set up by defectors from Tahrir al-Sham, accused its former group of collaborating with Turkey this summer, and both jihadist organisations are rivals of Turkish-backed groups in Idlib.

But many questions remain about how the province, while under Turkish control, has become dominated by the al Qaeda-linked groups, a fact that Damascus used to justify advances into Idlib under intensive bombardment this year, with backing from Russia.

“Idlib has become the world’s largest terrorist haven. Most of the nearly 40,000 foreign fighters that flooded Syria during its civil war came through Turkey into northwestern Syria,” McGurk said in the Washington Post.

“Today, it is largely controlled by al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Syria, which itself is sustained by cross-border trade and enjoys symbiotic relationships with Turkey-backed opposition groups. Now we know the area was hospitable enough for the world’s most-wanted terrorist to camp out with his extended family.”

Turkey’s statements since Sunday have tried to shift the focus to the SDF, whose links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Turkey has taken pains to underline.

Since the United States, European Union and other states have joined Ankara in designating the PKK a terrorist organisation, SDF leader Mazloum Kobani, who fought for the PKK during a period of bloody conflict in Turkey during the 1990s, is “as much of a terrorist as Baghdadi,” Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said on Monday.

The Turkish president’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, accused the SDF of releasing ISIS fighters and using their control of prisons holding them as leverage.

Altun also called for a thorough investigation into the movements of Baghdadi leading up to the raid, perhaps hinting at reports shared by BBC Syria producer Riam Dalati that corrupt SDF officials had been smuggling ISIS members to Idlib.

But such an investigation could turn up more than Altun hoped for. Dalati said human traffickers crossed into Turkey through Jarablus, a border town north of Manbij that is controlled by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) rebels.

“Some #TFSA leaders are as corrupt. The human trafficking trucks must go thru customs at Umm Jlud crossing, north of #Manbij. TFSA inspects and taxes commercial loads. Considering the trick is an open secret, corrupt SDF & TFSA elements are complicit in it,” Dalati said in a tweet.

This may have been the route that Iraqi officials discovered had been used to smuggle the wives of two of Baghdadi’s brothers into Idlib, the Guardian reported.

“The same smuggler had earlier helped move Baghdadi’s children from Iraq. Iraqi intelligence officers say they were able to co-opt the man and a woman believed to be his wife, as well as one of Baghdadi’s nephews, into providing information about the route he used and the destination of the people travelling with him,” the newspaper said.

© Ahval English