On February 3, U.S. president Joe Biden announced that U.S. special forces had conducted a raid in northwest Syria’s (NWS) Atmah city, killing Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi (also known as Abdullah Qardash). During the press conference following the strike, Biden presented the operation as a major success, citing the effectiveness of the U.S. military in protecting civilians.
The timing of the raid is particularly important to understanding the Biden administration’s thinking. During his speech, Biden connected Qardash to recent fighting at Sinaa Prison in Hasakah, claiming he planned the attack that aimed to free thousands of detained ISIS fighters held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The fighting at the prison and surrounding Ghuwayran area lasted roughly a week, resulting in over 500 deaths and marking the most significant fighting with ISIS in years. Sporadic fighting is still occurring in the area.
This incident may have hastened the planning process that went into the raid, but Biden made clear that U.S. military and intelligence entities had been planning the strike for months. This effort almost certainly included Turkish intelligence given that the location is only miles from the Turkish border—an important factor that raises its own questions—and in an area controlled by a mixture of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fighters and other Syrian opposition militias loyal to Ankara. In his speech, Biden outlined his thought process for the raid, claiming he chose to utilize special forces operators over airstrikes to reduce the chance of civilian harm.
Yet the operation still resulted in substantial civilian harm, with initial reports from sources on the ground indicating that multiple civilians were killed. The Syrian Center for Human Rights, a London-based war monitor, confirmed at the time of this publication that thirteen people were killed in the fighting, including four children and three women. Biden also confirmed an undisclosed number of civilian deaths, although he was quick to attribute responsibility to Qardash, claiming without evidence that the ISIS leader detonated explosive devices on the third floor of the building with his family inside to avoid capture. Interestingly, a U.S. military helicopter also malfunctioned and was subsequently destroyed by U.S. military personnel during the operation.
Such an outcome leaves much to be unpacked. Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby described the raid as a “successful counterterrorism mission” that resulted in “no US casualties.” Biden also described the attack as successful, as if the only measure of success is that no U.S. forces, in contrast to civilians, were killed. That said, such metrics are hardly the only factors in such a diagnosis of any given military operation. The U.S. government’s attempt to justify civilian harm in such a way proves that it is once again measuring “success” in terms of geopolitical objectives and at the expense of human rights considerations or protection of civilian principles.
Indeed, Biden’s open acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence knew there was a civilian presence in Qardash’s hideout is critical. While accepting an airstrike would certainly produce major civilian harm, the administration appears to have accepted the risks of an armed altercation with the ISIS leader as an alternative. But such a choice still implies an acceptance of civilian harm, especially considering former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated an explosive vest to avoid capture in 2019. Thus, it is not unreasonable to ask whether U.S. intelligence expected Qardash to do the same, accepting this reality while knowing civilians would die.
Essentially, even if Qardash did detonate explosives and end his life—which should be proven—it would seem the assessment of the raid and its outcome accepted civilian harm. Worse, events in Hasakah may have led the U.S. government to hastily accept risks to civilians to regain control over the so-called War on Terror against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Such observations are hardly lacking in evidence given other U.S. counterterrorism operations when observing other CT operations, not limited to instances at Baghouz and the Tabqa Dam in Syria, that were also based on dubious legal grounds, questionable intelligence, and prioritized broader security and political considerations over minimizing civilian harm. Ultimately, none of this suggests “success” is an accurate determination of the operation.
Rather, the Qardash raid appears to be another example of U.S. government indifference to civilian harm versus counterterrorism objectives. This is hardly surprising considering that the U.S. War on Terror—to this day intentionally vaguely defined—has claimed nearly one million lives, according to Brown University’s Cost of War project. Yet while experts across the Protection of Civilians and anti-war spaces continue to stress the fallacy of hyper-securitized counterterrorism efforts across the U.S. government, inertia continues to drive official U.S. policy.
Even Biden, a supposed proponent of ending forever wars, used Qardash’s death as a warning to other terrorists, explicitly stating in his speech that “we will come after you and find you.” This is a clear continuation of the status quo and would not mark the first time such an assassination is used to escalate U.S. counterterrorism efforts or affirm the alleged righteousness of U.S. efforts—at all costs.
Ultimately, Washington would be wise to consider practical foreign policy objectives based on verifiable results and mechanisms, as opposed to vague conceptualizations of the War on Terror. The latter will only result in more Syrian deaths and additional civilian harm across the globe.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service. Follow him at @langloisajl.