When President Donald Trump speaks at a press conference later today we can be sure he will be milking, for all it is worth, the presumed killing of Isis leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi during a raid on his compound in north-western Syria by US special forces. Trump is said to have authorised the operation last week, and multiple news outlets have confirmed that Al-Baghdadi is presumed dead.
For the first time since Trump bombed Syria over President Bashar Al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people, the US media, and political allies and foes alike, will be celebrating an obvious foreign policy triumph. For his detractors, it is only by bombing a foreign country or killing a major terrorist that Trump can look – as Fareed Zakaria famously said after the Syria cruise missile strikes – ‘presidential’.
Crucially, fear of terrorism ranks far higher among Trump’s core base than it does among Americans generally, and we can be sure that right up until next year’s election day he will try to reap the political capital of this successful raid. Truth be told, Isis – which Al-Baghdadi led from 2010 when it was an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq – has long been a spent force in the region. But with Al-Baghdadi’s death, Trump will hope to be known as the leader of the free world who dealt Isis that final, fatal blow. God knows he could do with some good publicity, and the timing of Al-Baghdadi’s death could not be better for a president bogged down in an escalating impeachment scandal.
Most important perhaps is that, after both Republicans and Democrats had castigated him for his troop withdrawal from Syria and abandonment of the Kurds, Trump’s flip-flop on Friday – in sending hundreds of troops, tanks and armoured vehicles to occupy Syria’s oil fields – was to ensure escaped Isis fighters do not seize them. Al-Baghdadi’s death will play into that narrative perfectly, bolstering Trump’s argument that, contrary to widespread concerns, he has not taken his eye off the ball and Isis will not regain strength and threaten American interests.