Inside the West’s secret war against ISIS

Sunday 03/07/2016
US special operations forces walk in the village of Fatisah in the northern Syrian province of Raqqa, last May.

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.