Is the Islamic State coming back?
In the past few days there have been a series of large-scale ISIS attacks in Syria. Is the Islamic State coming back?
After the many attacks in Syria and Iraq in the last few days, the question for many is whether these attacks announce a comeback of the Islamic State or whether there are other factors that prompted this increase.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) ended the territorial rule of the so called ‘caliphate’ with the liberation of Baghouz in March 2019. Even if thousands of ISIS jihadists have been arrested, underground, clandestine structures have formed in Iraq and Syria. In provinces such as Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Hama in Syria and Kirkuk, Baghdad and Anbar in Iraq, these networks have been carrying out attacks from time to time. The frequency and quality of these attacks has increased significantly in the last few days.
Dozens of attacks since early December
Since December 2020, the Islamic State has carried out eight attacks in Deir ez-Zor, eight in Raqqa, ten in Hama, five in Homs and two in the Aleppo area. Shortly before the end of the year, ISIS bloodiest attack took place, leaving at least 28 Damascus soldiers dead on the road between Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) speaks of dozens of Syrian government soldiers and militia killed in ISIS attacks in the desert near Hama.
Damascus is not doing anything serious against ISIS
The presence of the Islamic State in the desert to the west of Deir ez-Zor, i.e. in the area under the control of the Assad regime, has never been a secret. However, as it is, the Damascus regime and its supporters have never waged a serious fight against the Islamic State presence there. According to observers, this was because of the plan to put pressure on US-backed groups in the Tanef region on the Jordanian border. It must also be noted that this region is on the route from Bukemal, the main route of Iranian militias to Iraq, something which led to a wide range of speculations.
Turkey's Role in Reviving ISIS
The biggest factor that led to the resurgence of ISIS, however, was the invasion carried out by the Turkish state in northern Syria. Following this invasion, many ISIS members withdrew to the areas under Turkish rule. Many of them escaped from internment camps and prisons in northern Syria with the help of Turkey. The presence and reorganization of the Islamic State in the areas under Turkish control is an open secret.
SDF operations continued
The SDF carried out targeted operations against the Islamic State networks and were able to discover and neutralise several jihadist cells, especially in the Deir ez-Zor region. In 2020, two large-scale SDF operations and 25 targeted operations against these cells took place in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa provinces. Hundreds of alleged Islamic State members were arrested and large quantities of weapons were confiscated.
The areas under ISIS control
Siyamend Elî, press officer at the YPG, said in an interview with ANF that ISIS was tolerated by various forces involved in Syria, precisely in the places where the attacks are taking place, and added: “After the neutralisation of ISIS in Baghouz, it continued to exist mainly in al-Bukamal, Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra and Hama. In fact, some forces have allowed ISIS to continue to exist there in order to be able to use it as a tool in the future."
ISIS used this phase as a time for training and reorganising and also to change its strategy, said the YPG representative adding: "ISIS is now carrying out many more surprise attacks and has increased its forces."
Russia focused on Northern Syria
Elî recalled that Russia and Iran came to Syria allegedly "to protect Syrian territory", but that both forces are not concerned with rural areas, but rather focused on "cities that are strategically important for them.”
Elî said: "Russia's concentration on Til Temir and Ain Issa, and on Northern Syria in general, gave ISIS the opportunity to carry out these attacks." He underlined that ISIS is not a priority for Russia. Israel's attacks on Iranian armed forces have led to an increased of attacks by ISIS in these regions, said the press spokesman for the YPG, noting that the regime would not be able to wage war without Iran and Russia.
"Coordination with the SDF necessary"
Elî said: “Russia and the regime should coordinate with the SDF in the fight against ISIS and the small groups that appear under different names. If this does not happen, the situation east of the Euphrates will become very serious. That is why ISIS has been able to act by surprise against Russia and the regime."
The attacks put a strain on the regional balance of power
Journalist Nazım Daştan is also following developments in the region closely and does not see the increase in ISIS attacks as a coincidental development. To speak about a revival of ISIS is “still a little too early” but, said Dastan: “ISIS is coming to the surface again. Even if I don't think this will happen on a large scale, it can put a strain on the balance of power in the region. The attacks may increase further in the coming days."
"The international powers neutralize each other"
Daştan pointed out that the United States and Russia continued to try to define their territories and thus determine the borders in Syria. This results in a space from which ISIS can carry out its attacks. Daştan said: "We can see this as a process in which the international powers and regional powers measure each other anew for the year 2021."
As for the position of ISIS, Daştan added: “It will be difficult to revive such a discredited force on an earlier scale. However, ISIS can use this process, in which international forces are actually busy weakening each other, as an opportunity for its reorganization and strengthening."