Inside the West’s secret war against ISIS
Beirut - Colonel Bakour Salim, leader of a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was assassinated in June by an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomber apparently because he had allegedly been collaborating with a European intelligence service in the war against the jihadists in the desert region where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Jordan converge.
Regional sources identified the European agency as Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6. MI6, like the US Central Intelligence Agency, is well-entrenched in Jordan with the Hashemite kingdom’s General Intelligence Directorate, one of the most efficient security services in the Arab world and a key element in the expanding secret war against ISIS.
Salim commanded the Ahmad al- Abdo Martyrs Forces, a little-known group believed to be supported by the United States and Jordan. The High Negotiations Committee, which represents Syrian rebel organisations at the faltering peace negotiations in Geneva, said Salim was a member of the group.
Salim was killed June 9th at a base in the eastern Qalamoun Mountains of Syria, where his group had made advances against ISIS. His assassination could also be viewed as a jihadist attempt to sabotage the faltering peace process as well as an attack on Western intelligence services that run their secret war from Jordan.
The British newspaper the Times reported in June that a Jordan-based detachment of Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) was crossing into Syria to support the New Syrian Army (NSA). The NSA, supposedly made up of defectors from Syrian Army special forces troops and backed by the United States, Britain and Jordan, is part of the FSA.
The Americans have recently built up their special operations forces deployment in Syria and Kurdish and Arab rebel forces linked to these elite troops, trained to operate covertly and behind enemy lines, have made significant advances against ISIS.
Apart from the British, French and Australian special forces are also operating in Syria and Iraq. Syrian regime sources claim there are German operatives active in the flashpoint region around the contested city of Aleppo. Germany denied the reports.
These forces — some 300 Americans, 100-150 Britons and 150 French — have become the cutting edge of a vast, multinational intelligence-run operation in Syria largely based in Jordan, which has become the hub of the US-led coalition’s military effort against ISIS, and which, as recent events have shown, marked Jordan as a target for ISIS.
Special forces operations are by their nature largely covert and thus there is little official confirmation of their activities. But in March, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter shed light on the Pentagon’s newly unveiled “specialised expeditionary targeting force” after a team from the US Army’s elite Delta Force, captured a key ISIS leader the previous month.
Carter said the unit would be part of accelerated covert operations “to conduct raids of various kinds, seizing places and people, freeing hostages and prisoners… and making it such that [ISIS] has to fear that anywhere, anytime, it may be struck.”
This force, which includes Australian SAS troops, appears to replicate an allied covert group known as Task Force Black, an amalgam of the SAS and the US Army’s Delta Force, that was highly successful against al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor, in gathering intelligence.
It also eliminated many al-Qaeda’s leaders in Iraq, including its bloodthirsty Jordanian leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, in a nightly wave of special operations at the height of the terror campaign in 2006.
A senior British officer observed: “We took over 3,500 terrorists off the streets of Baghdad in around 18 months.”
US President Barack Obama recently escalated the special forces war, supported by US-led air strikes, because of growing pressure in the US Congress for a major conventional military campaign that would employ the full range of US firepower.
The current strategy would appear to be a compromise and, although it has produced some tactical gains on the ground in recent weeks, most analysts do not believe it will be enough to pulverise ISIS or crush its ideology.
Lieutenant-General Robert P. Otto, the US Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, recently acknowledged that decapitation strikes can only have a short-term impact on ISIS’s capabilities.
“From my observation, when we take (high-value individuals) off the battlefield, there’s a temporary impact on operations and then the adversary appoints someone else in his place,” he said. “There’s always someone somebody else… We can’t kill our way out of this war.”
Still, in recent months, there has been a marked improvement in targeting ISIS leaders, field commanders as well as administrators, economists, recruiters and the like, and much of this has stemmed from more accurate intelligence acquired by special forces, mainly US and British.
The United States claims more than 120 senior ISIS officials have been killed or captured in recent months, including at least 15 key figures. The manhunt for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been stepped up.
There are also several hundred US special forces in Iraq and Yemen. Other Western special forces operations are under way in Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere across North Africa, where France, as the former colonial power, has been leading the charge since 2013.
British SAS troopers have been deployed in Libya, a major oil producer where ISIS has sought to establish a new operational base closer to Europe, since the beginning of the year, according to a confidential briefing given by King Abdullah of Jordan to US congressional leaders on January 11th and leaked to British newspapers.