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Tue Oct 29, 2019, 08:22 AM

As Kurds Tracked ISIS Leader, U.S. Withdrawal Threw Raid Into Turmoil


Trump’s decision to pull troops from Syria upended a 5-year alliance and threw the plans against al-Baghdadi into disarray.

By Ben Hubbard and Eric Schmitt

Published Oct. 28, 2019

Updated Oct. 29, 2019, 7:57 a.m. ET

QAMISHLI, Syria — When the international manhunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, zoomed in on a village in northwestern Syria, the United States turned to its local allies to help track the world’s most-wanted terrorist.

The American allies, a Kurdish-led force that had partnered with the United States to fight ISIS, sent spies to watch his isolated villa. To confirm it was him, they stole a pair of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s underwear — long, white boxers — and obtained a blood sample, both for DNA testing, the force’s commander, Mazlum Abdi, said in a phone interview on Monday.

American officials would not discuss the specific intelligence provided by the Kurds, but said that their role in finding Mr. al-Baghdadi was essential — more so than all other countries combined, as one put it — contradicting President Trump’s assertion over the weekend that the United States “got very little help.”

Yet even as the Syrian Kurdish fighters were risking their lives in the hunt that led to Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death this weekend, Mr. Trump abruptly shattered America’s five-year partnership with them.

He decided to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, leaving the Kurds suddenly vulnerable to an invasion by Turkey and feeling stung by an American betrayal, and throwing the Baghdadi operation into turmoil as the Kurds suspended their security cooperation with the United States to rush off and defend their land.

“We thought that America would keep its promises,” said Mr. Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. “But in the end there was weakness — and disappointment.”

The United States joined forces with Mr. Abdi’s group five years ago, when it was looking for skilled Syrian fighters who could effectively serve as ground troops for an American air campaign against the Islamic State. As the alliance matured, the United States armed and trained Kurdish-led fighters and pressed them to shift their priorities to serve American interests.


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