In the past month, the name and image of General Mazloum Adbi, the commander of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, has become well known to Americans. The decision by President Trump to precipitously withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria, thereby greenlighting a Turkish military incursion which targeted Mazloum and his forces, prompted a widespread discussion about the American “abandonment” of its Kurdish allies, and General Mazloum quickly became the face of the Kurds.
After the targeted killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, by elite commandos from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), General Mazloum’s status as a heroic figure was cemented, given the role he and the SDF played in that effort. But Mazloum has a dark past which makes his relationship with the U.S. highly problematic.
To hear the Kurds tell it, the attack on al-Baghdadi wouldn’t—indeed, couldn’t—have happened without their support. “Since 15 May ,” Polat Can, a senior adviser to the SDF, declared via Twitter, “we have been working together with the CIA to track Al Baghdadi and monitor him closely.” The operation to kill Baghdadi was supposed to take place a month ago, Mr. Can tweeted, but the decision by President Trump to pull American troops out of northeastern Syria, followed by the Turkish incursion into the evacuated territory, caused a postponement. Eventually, however, the mission was a “go.”
The Genesis of the assault on al-Baghdadi, officially known as Operation Kayla Mueller, in honor of the American aid worker who was captured, tortured and killed by al-Baghdadi, did not originate with the Kurds, but rather in Turkey, where in February 2018 Turkish intelligence agents arrested Ismael al-Ethawi, one of al-Baghdadi’s closest aides. The Turks turned al-Ethawi over to Iraqi authorities, who under interrogation by the Iraqis and the CIA revealed the identities of other close associates of al-Baghdadi, who were in turn detained and questioned.
From this information, the Iraqis and the CIA were able to piece together a pattern of activity used by al-Baghdadi to avoid detection. Armed with this information, the CIA approached the Syrian Kurds of the SDF, whose intelligence service deployed a network of human agents to try and locate al-Baghdadi, which they succeeded in doing in May 2019.
According to General Abdi, his forces were able to identify the house where al-Baghdadi was staying, and then insert an informant who was able to provide critical details about its physical properties. Abdistated that the SDF set up a secret intelligence cell to control the informant and invited the CIA to participate. The intelligence produced by this cell was instrumental in the planning of the assault on al-Baghdadi’s compound. According to Abdi, the informant was one of two adult men detained by the assault force and evacuated from the site once the mission was completed.
U.S. Special Operations Forces have a history of close cooperation with Syrian Kurds in carrying out anti-ISIS operations. This cooperation began in the fall of 2014, when Joint Tactical Air Control (JTAC)-qualified U.S. Special Operators, skilled in directing close air support of forces engaged in combat, began controlling coalition air strikes in support of Kurdish forces defending the Syrian city of Kobani from ISIS attack. The Americans had never worked with the Syrian Kurds before, and there was a steep learning curve on the part of both the Americans and their Kurdish counterparts. The arrival of Iraqi Kurdish Special Forces who had a history of working with American JTACs in Iraq helped the targeting process immensely.
Since 2012 both the CIA and the U.S. Department of Defense had been engaged in dual equip and train missions to field viable opposition forces capable of overthrowing the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. By 2014, these efforts had failed abysmally. At the same time, the regime change focus was overtaken by the rise of ISIS, and the need to field a force capable of defeating this new threat.