The rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq — again

Mohammed Alloush, The Cradle, August 21, 2023 —

ISIS cannot be defeated by the conflicting constellation of foreign forces and factions who leave behind security vacuums to serve their personal interests. It hasn’t worked. This fight must be initiated from a single centralized command, led by Damascus and Baghdad.

In a stark reminder of its resurgence on the political and security scene, ISIS unleashed a harrowing attack on 3 August, targeting a Syrian army bus within the Al-Mayadeen desert in the eastern expanse of the Deir Ezzor countryside. The aftermath was devastating, leaving dozens of casualties and injuries among the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).

This audacious assault marked the third in a series of strikes by the terrorist group against Syrian military forces since the start of August, and represents the most lethal display of violence since ISIS’ 2019 military defeat in al-Baghouz, a strategic town in Deir Ezzor. Clearly, the organization has been intensifying its terror campaigns, underscoring its determination to reestablish an active presence and intensified threat within Syria.

Having control over the remote stretches of the Syrian Badia (Arabic word for desert) and southeastern territories, ISIS had recently shifted its focus towards densely populated regions in the western parts of the country, as well as along the banks of the Euphrates River in Deir Ezzor.

This unsettling expansion of targets serves as a poignant reminder that the elimination of its leader, the fourth “caliph” Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi, last April by Turkish forces, did not shatter the group’s operational capabilities.

Leadership changes in ISIS

The organization’s preferred targets are strategic locations like oil infrastructure and areas under Syrian government control. A prime example was the daring attack on Al-Hasakah Central Prison on 20 January, 2022. During an intense 10-day clash against the US-backed Kurdish militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), ISIS fighters managed to free more than 500 of their leaders and members, with a grim toll of around 500 lives lost in the process.

In the northeastern stretches of Syria, the SDF is grappling with the challenge of detaining approximately 70,000 individuals suspected of affiliations with ISIS, including women and children. Moreover, they are responsible for guarding more than 10,000 imprisoned militants. In this endeavor, the Kurdish militias are bolstered by critical air support, intelligence sharing, and reconnaissance assistance provided by US military forces.

In response to this heightened ISIS threat, the US claimed a tally of 313 offensive operations targeting the group within Iraq and Syria by the close of 2022. Among these, a high-profile raid targeted Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, the second caliph of ISIS, on 3 February earlier that year. Furthermore, the US forces succeeded in neutralizing or capturing at least six senior leaders within the organization, including his successor Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi.

Last November, ISIS Spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir announced the selection of Abu al-Hussein as the fourth caliph, hiding his real identity for his protection, but he too perished in confrontations in northwestern Syria. On 3 August, the organization announced the appointment of yet another successor.

The imprisoned ISIS army

In 2022, the Pentagon’s assessment shed light on ISIS’s concerted efforts to regain lost territory by exploiting security vulnerabilities and rebuilding its combat capabilities. In its comprehensive review for that year, the US Central Command highlighted an unsettling reality: ISIS has essentially amassed an “army in detention” within the territories of Iraq and Syria. Presently, more than 10,000 ISIS leaders and fighters are held in detention facilities across Syria, while the number surpasses 20,000 in Iraq.

Though no longer commanding extensive swathes of Iraqi and Syrian lands, ISIS’s lingering threat endures, evident in its efforts to free incarcerated members from Syrian penitentiaries.

According to experts, while its territorial grasp may have weakened, the organization still boasts a contingent of 10,000 to 30,000 fighters within Syria and Iraq. These individuals are largely confined within minimally secured detention centers, where the group’s strategy hinges on a dual-pronged approach: releasing their own from captivity and recruiting fresh combatants.

Notwithstanding this, the group’s operational potency remains modest, restricting its ability to orchestrate complex missions. Rather, its modus operandi mainly revolves around seizing fleeting opportunities borne from security lapses, emergent vulnerabilities, or the lack of synchronization among opposing forces.

In its annual threat assessment, the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence warned that:

“While ISIS and Qa’eda suffered major leadership losses in 2022, degrading external operations and capabilities, both organizations’ offshoots continue to exploit local conflicts and broader political instability to make territorial and operational gains.”

“Even following the loss of several key ISIS leaders in 2022, ISIS’s insurgency in Iraq and Syria will persist as the group seeks to rebuild capabilities and replenish its ranks,” the report states.

The vulnerabilities entrenched within northeastern Syria are unmistakable: an uptick in ISIS activity, precarious stability in Deir Ezzor, and overcrowded camps and prisons teetering without adequate safeguarding. Most troubling is the Al-Hol camp, housing approximately 68,000 individuals related to the terror group, predominantly women and children.

A ‘ticking time bomb’

Security experts in the US fear that the harsh conditions within the camp could metastasize into a breeding ground for extremist ideologies if proactive measures fail to deprogram prisoners from ISIS’s influence. These measures involve fostering community reconciliation in their eventual return areas, cultivating social bonds, instilling a sense of belonging, and administering justice and accountability.

Moreover, the territories under Kurdish force control grapple with simmering ethnic tensions and clashes of interest among the mostly Arab factions opposing Kurdish rule. Over the past years, local inhabitants have voiced their discontent with the SDF’s administration, lamenting its services, arbitrary arrests, favoritism, forced conscription, and ethnic marginalization. These grievances have gone insufficiently addressed, culminating in a mounting wave of resentment.

ISIS attacks on Kurdish-held areas appear aimed at threatening the local Arab populations against cooperating with the SDF, leading to the breakdown of local governance bodies and depriving the SDF of access to ground intel needed for effective counterinsurgency efforts. In March 2019, ISIS spokesman Abu al-Hasan al-Muhajir called on Arabs in eastern Syria to withdraw from the ranks of the “atheist Kurds” and to “repent” before it is too late.

The resurgence of ISIS can be attributed to a convergence of factors, each playing a distinct role in its revival. A key catalyst has been the reduction in international military operations against the organization, largely driven by the global preoccupation with the conflict in Ukraine. This shift in focus diverted attention and resources away from countering ISIS, allowing the group to exploit the resulting security vacuum.

Complicating matters, the cessation of Russian-American coordination in Syria—prompted by their discord over the Ukrainian crisis—has further undercut efforts to contain ISIS. The discord between these two major powers in the Syrian theater has hindered effective cooperation against the common threat. The country has also become an arena for the budding Moscow-Tehran alliance.

In addition, the recent rapprochement between Turkiye and Syria has contributed to a lull in operations by the SDF, which had been a key counterforce against ISIS. As the two neighbors move toward normalization, the SDF’s focus has shifted, potentially providing breathing room for ISIS to regain its footing.

US strategy & regional interests

Underpinning this resurgence are dormant sleeper cells within Syria. These clandestine elements, capable of independent operations without centralized coordination, have effectively exploited the chaos and security gaps, allowing the organization to execute attacks and establish a renewed presence.

Furthermore, the emergence of a new leadership within ISIS plays a pivotal role. Eager to establish its credibility and influence, particularly in rural areas, this leadership is keen on demonstrating its competence in leading the group’s activities.

Amidst these complex dynamics, the Eastern Euphrates region is a cauldron of tensions, most notably evidenced by the friction between Russian and US aircraft. This animosity stems from multifaceted factors, including US plans to assert control over oil fields and to establish a continuous link between the Al-Tanf area and Al-Bukamal, effectively creating a contiguous line along the Syrian-Iraqi border to curtail Iran’s influence.

At the heart of these strategic moves is Washington’s apprehension that any Turkish incursion into northern Syria could destabilize the efforts to contain not only ISIS but also extremist jihadist militias. Such an invasion would compel the SDF to shift its focus from anti-ISIS operations to confronting Turkish forces, eroding the effectiveness of containment strategies.

Paradoxically, the US’s goals in Syria do not appear to be the eradication of ISIS. In fact, the evidence shows that Washington aims to contain the organization’s activities within a controlled sphere, allowing it to manipulate and channel ISIS’s actions to serve its own interests in both Syria and the wider West Asian region. Stealing Syrian natural resources (oil and wheat) and thwarting the gains of pro-Iran resistance movements, are but two such examples.

Shifting ISIS strategies

Since losing its last stronghold in Syria, “ISIS activity has greatly diminished. But on both the threat and operational levels, it remained reasonably effective,” terrorism expert Matthew Hinman of Jane’s Intelligence tells The Cradle. The group has maintained a steady pace of violence in various major theaters of operations, focusing on exploiting regional instability to seize territory.

In response to relentless leadership targeting, the organization underwent a transformative shift from a top-down, military-structured bureaucracy to a more dispersed and decentralized insurgency. This evolution prompted the adoption of guerrilla warfare tactics, leading to a surge in assaults against Syrian forces and Kurdish militias.

Indeed, the presence of ISIS within Syria reflects the multifaceted and conflicting power dynamics at play within the country. The group’s defeat can be attributed to an array of adversaries, including the SDF supported by the US and the international coalition, the Syrian army bolstered by Iran and Russia, and opposition rebels backed by Turkiye.

Confronting the ISIS threat

The territorial landscape is divided among these factions, each enforcing its distinct security frameworks, lacking centralized control, and thwarting a unified strategy against ISIS’s resurgence. This dynamic has paved the way for ISIS’s adaptable operational approach that adjusts to the conditions within each region.

In contrast, the Syrian military’s counter-ISIS operations generally prioritize swiftness over territorial retention, which raises concerns about the organization’s potential to regroup in vacated areas. Moreover, the targeting of mid-level leadership remains infrequent, potentially allowing for the resurgence of their influence and activities.

In order to effectively address the ISIS threat, it is essential for the international community, the Syrian government, and influential countries to prioritize three key areas:

Firstly, there should be a concerted military effort to defeat ISIS, facilitated by coordinated operations and the sharing of critical information – which, importantly, should be led by the sovereign governments of Syria and Iraq, and not foreign forces. Secondly, it is crucial to achieve a political settlement that prevents security vacuums resulting from the unauthorized presence of foreign forces within Syrian territory – examples include regions controlled by US forces in northeastern Syria and areas under Turkish force control in the north.

Lastly, combating the extremist ideology promoted by ISIS necessitates the implementation of educational curricula and media strategies that not only respect a wide range of religious beliefs but also consider the cultural values of the conservative society in the country.

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