How much did Turkey know about Baghdadi’s location in Syria?

The killing of Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a Syrian village a mere 5 km from the Turkish border raised serious questions about how much Turkey knew about his whereabouts.

The fact the U.S. team that killed Baghdadi took off from far-off Iraq rather than a nearby U.S. base in Turkey suggested to some that Washington sought to keep Ankara in the dark about the operation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, has said that Turkey “contributed to the United States (operation) to kill Baghdadi.”

According to Erdoğan, the U.S. helicopters carrying out the raid used airspace in Syria under Turkish control over both Afrin and Jarablus on their way to their target.

“We knew that there would be an operation against Baghdadi,” he said. “We warned our units in Afrin and Jarablus and ordered them not to open fire.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group said its intelligence source had located Baghdadi in the village of Barisha in Syria’s Idlib province, and even managed to take his underwear for a DNA test to ensure it was indeed him.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali suggested on Twitter that Turkey knew Baghdadi’s location and argued that the Turkish government did not see Baghdadi’s presence near its border as a threat.

“The SDF shared information of Baghdadi’s whereabouts - and that he was located in Idlib - with U.S. in May. Turkey, which has carried out countless airstrikes deep inside KRI targeting certain people, has questions to answer on Baghdadi case,” Bali also tweeted, referring to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where Turkey has carried out several air strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“At a time when there is a bipartisan consensus that Turkey’s military operation against the Syrian Kurds in northeast Syria should be condemned, the circumstances of this raid only lead to more questions about Turkey,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“It seems that Baghdadi was camped out in Idlib in northwest Syria, which is essentially managed by Turkey through Syrian rebel proxies, for at least several months, and that he was in an area not only close to the Turkish border, it is a major transit route into and out of Turkey.”

Heras said this was a good place for Baghdadi to stay if he was “trying to connect with and reassemble the ISIS external attack network that needs to move through Turkey to get to Europe.”

Shortly after the Barisha raid, U.S. President Donald Trump said Baghdadi had moved to Idlib as part of a plan to rebuild ISIS, which lost the last remnants of its self-styled caliphate in eastern Syria to a U.S.-backed SDF offensive against the town of Baghouz in March.

“Turkish intelligence has Idlib strongly under its thumb,” Heras said.

“There are serious questions about how long Turkey might have known Baghdadi was in Idlib, and if it did, why it did not move on him.”

Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, also said that Turkey “will have a lot of explaining to do because the self-named caliph Baghdadi was found not in eastern Syria but miles from Turkey's border in northwestern Syria, which Turkey has been protecting from Syrian takeover.”

“Indeed most Western powers have argued that the region should remain under Turkey's and HTS’ leadership and control because they want to keep it out of Damascus’ hands,” Landis told Ahval.

Turkey has 12 observation posts around Idlib and Syrian militia proxies operating in the province. Most of the province is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra led by Abu Mohammad al-Julani. 

“It seems clear that Huras al-Din knew of Baghdadi's presence and was receiving money from ISIS,” Landis said, referring to al-Qaeda’s unofficial affiliate in Idlib. Recently uncovered ISIS documents purportedly show that the group paid at least $67,000 in protection money to Huras al-Din. 

Landis added that while we can’t know for sure if HTS leader Julani knew about Baghdadi’s presence “he does claim to control the Idlib enclave and HTS is the dominant force there.”

“Julani is the ultimate authority in the region and has the power to demand accountability from subordinate militias.”

He concluded by arguing that Baghdadi’s decision to seek “refuge in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib should make the Western world and Turkey rethink its policy toward the rebels, Julani and Idlib’s continued autonomy.”

But Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, believes that it was impossible that Turkey knew of Baghdadi’s presence in Idlib.

“Even if you believe the narrative that the Turkish government colludes, or has colluded, with jihadists in Syria, there is no reason for it to hide Baghdadi,” Orton said.

“What possible use could Turkey put the Islamic State to while it is in this condition?”

Orton argued that Ankara has every incentive “to gain the political credit of being the one to neutralise ISIS’ leader or hand him over to the Americans.”

He believes it is also unlikely that HTS knew Baghdadi was in Barisha, pointing out that the group “has waged a ruthless and moderately effective campaign against the Islamic State cells in Idlib.”

“But it does appear that al-Baghdadi was able to get to Idlib and be sheltered because of ISIS agents within Huras al-Din, the unofficial al-Qaeda faction that has ostensibly splintered away from HTS,” he said.

“Given the seniority of some of these ISIS moles, it raises questions about Huras al-Din, and the whole issue of the Huras-HTS-Qaeda relationship resurfaces.”

Orton believes that the available evidence suggests that it is ultimately “unlikely that HTS or Huras al-Din institutionally collaborated with ISIS to shelter the caliph.”

“The question then becomes about how badly ISIS has compromised these organisations.”

Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, believes that if Turkish intelligence did ultimately know where Baghdadi was “it is very unlikely that Turkey shared such critical information without asking for a big reward from Washington.”

“We do not hear the Turkish government claiming intelligence credit, even though the Kurds are now bragging about their role in the operation,” Gurbuz said.

Instead, Ankara has only mentioned the “strategic partnership for the operation” while “not giving specific details about intelligence sharing.”

“Also, we know that there is a deep mistrust between Pentagon and Turkish officials on ISIS for many years now; thus, for such a high-target operation, Turkish-American cooperation looks impossible,” he said.

Gurbuz noted that in the Oct. 27 killing of ISIS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir in Ain al-Baydah village near Turkish-controlled Jarablus “Kurdish forces claimed credit for information sharing as well.”

Ultimately, he anticipates that Baghdadi’s killing “may lead to a rapprochement between al-Qaeda and ISIS members for global operations.”

“If that happens, that’s very bad news for Turkey, which may become a jihadist highway once again as their mobilisation will be relatively easy to access European countries,” he said.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.