By Nauman Sadiq
In June last year, the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that according to information, the leader of the Islamic State Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi had reportedly been killed as a result of airstrikes conducted by the Russian aircrafts on a southern suburb of Raqqa on May 28.
Similarly, Rami Abdul Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) told Reuters  in July last year the Observatory had “confirmed information” from activists working in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor that Al-Baghdadi had been killed.
The so-called Observatory’s reports are generally taken at face value by the mainstream media, but in this particular case, the report was somehow overlooked, despite its “wide network of on-the-ground reporters in Syria and a high degree of credibility” (no pun intended).
According to Russian claims, the airstrikes targeted a meeting of high-ranking Islamic State leaders where al- Baghdadi was reportedly present. The meeting was gathered to plan exit routes for militants from Raqqa through the so-called “southern corridor.” Apart from Al-Baghdadi, 30 field commanders and up to 300 militants were also killed in the airstrike.
On Monday, Nick Paton Walsh reported for the CNN  “The Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was wounded in an airstrike in May last year and had to relinquish control of the terror group for up to five months because of his injuries, according to several US officials who spoke exclusively to CNN.”
Now, even the mainstream media is admitting the possibility the Russian airstrike might have incapacitated Al-Baghdadi. As the CNN report further states: “It’s believed the airstrike occurred close to the date offered by the Russian military in June when they claimed to have killed or injured the Islamic State leader.”
According to another report  on Monday by Al-Jazeera, “Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is alive and being treated at a medical facility in northeastern Syria after being severely wounded in an air raid, a senior Iraqi official said.”
“The head of Islamic State sustained serious wounds to his legs during air raids,” Abu Ali al-Basri, Iraq’s intelligence and counterterrorism department chief, was quoted on Monday by the Iraqi government-run al-Sabah daily as saying. “Al-Baghdadi suffers from injuries, diabetes and fractures to the body and legs that prevent him from walking without assistance,” said al-Basri.
Although al-Baghdadi has not publicly appointed a successor, two of the closest aides who have emerged as his likely successors over the years are Iyad al-Obeidi, his defense minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, the in charge of security. The latter had already reportedly been killed in an airstrike in April last year in al-Qaim region on Iraq’s border with Syria.
Therefore, the most likely successor to al-Baghdadi would be al-Obaidi. Both al-Jumaili and al-Obeidi had previously served as security officers in Iraq’s Baathist army under Saddam Hussein, and al-Obeidi is known to be the de facto deputy of al-Baghdadi.
Excluding al-Baghdadi and some of his hardline Islamist aides, the rest of Islamic State’s top leadership is comprised of Saddam era military and intelligence officials. Hundreds of ex-Baathists reportedly constitute the top and mid-tier command structure of the Islamic State who plan all the operations and direct its military strategy.
Thus, apart from training and arms that have been provided to militants in the training camps located in the Turkish and Jordanian border regions adjacent to Syria by the CIA in collaboration with Turkish, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence agencies, the only other factor which has contributed to the astounding success of the Islamic State from early 2013 to August 2014 is that its top cadres are comprised of professional military and intelligence officers from the Saddam era.
Moreover, according to a recent AFP report  by Maya Gebeily, hundreds of Islamic State’s jihadists have joined the so-called ‘moderate rebels’ in Idlib in their battle against the advancing Syrian government troops backed by Russian airstrikes. The Islamic State already had a foothold in neighbouring Hama province and its infiltration in Idlib seems to be an extension of its outreach. On January 12, the Islamic State officially declared Idlib one of its ‘Islamic emirates.’ It has reportedly captured several villages and claims to have killed two dozen Syrian soldiers and taken 20 hostages.
In all likelihood, some of the Islamic State’s jihadists who have joined the battle in Idlib were part of the same contingent of militants that fled Raqqa in October last year under a deal brokered  by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In fact, one of the main objectives of the deal was to let the jihadists fight the Syrian government troops and to free up the Kurdish-led SDF in a scramble to capture oil and gas fields in Deir al-Zor and the border posts along Syria’s border with Iraq.
Islamic State’s foray into Idlib, which has firmly been under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) led by al-Nusra Front since 2015, isn’t the only instance of its kind. Remember when the Syrian government was on the verge of winning a resounding victory against the militants holed up in east Aleppo, Islamic State came to the rescue of so-called ‘moderate rebels’ by opening up a new front in Palmyra in December 2016.
Consequently, the Syrian government had to send reinforcements from Aleppo to Palmyra in order to defend the city. Although the Syrian government troops still managed to evict the militants holed up in the eastern enclave of Aleppo and they also retook Palmyra from Islamic State in March last year, the basic purpose of this tactical move by the Islamic State was to divert the attention and resources of the Syrian government away from Aleppo to Palmyra.
Fact of the matter is that the distinction between Islamic jihadists and purported ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria is more illusory than real. Before it turned rogue and overran Mosul in Iraq in June 2014, Islamic State used to be an integral part of the Syrian opposition and it still enjoys close ideological and operational ties with other militant groups in Syria.
It’s worth noting that although turf wars are common not just between the Islamic State and other militant groups operating in Syria but also among rebel groups themselves, the ultimate objective of the Islamic State and the rest of Sunni militant outfits operating in Syria is the same: to overthrow the Shi’a-led and Baathist-dominated government of Bashar al-Assad.
Regarding the Syrian opposition, a small fraction of it is comprised of defected Syrian soldiers who go by the name of Free Syria Army, but the vast majority has been comprised of Sunni Arab jihadists and armed tribesmen who have been generously funded, trained, armed and internationally legitimized by their regional and global patrons.
Islamic State is nothing more than one of numerous Syrian militant outfits, others being: al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, al-Tawhid Brigade, Jaysh al Islam etc. All the Sunni Arab militant groups that are operating in Syria are just as fanatical and brutal as the Islamic State. The only feature that differentiates the Islamic State from the rest is that it is more ideological and independent-minded.
The reason why the US has turned against the Islamic State is that all other Syrian militant outfits only have local ambitions that are limited to fighting the Syrian government, while the Islamic State has established a global network of transnational terrorists that includes hundreds of Western citizens who have become a national security risk to the Western countries.
Sources and links:
 Syrian Observatory says it has ‘confirmed information’ that Islamic State chief is dead: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-baghdadi-idUSKBN19W1AW
 ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi injured in airstrike last May: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/12/middleeast/isis-leader-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-wounded-intl/index.html
 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘Alive but wounded’ in Syria: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-alive-wounded-north-syria-180212150123915.html
 Four years and one caliphate later, Islamic State claims Idlib comeback: https://uk.news.yahoo.com/four-years-one-caliphate-later-claims-idlib-comeback-143938964.html
 Raqqa’s dirty secret: the deal that let Islamic State jihadists escape Raqqa: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/raqqas_dirty_secret