Factors contributing to Islamic State’s possible return in eastern Syria

An expressive photo of a fighter raising the flag of the Islamic State (IS) organization (edited by Enab Baladi)

An expressive photo of a fighter raising the flag of the Islamic State (IS) organization (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

In March 2019, after the “victory” announcement over the so-called Islamic State (IS) organization by the US-backed Syrian Democratic forces (SDF), that was active in the eastern region of Syria, Arab newspapers and research centers have warned that the announcement does not mean the end of the organization or its threat, for it “still exists in the area.”

A year after the end of military operations against the last enclave of IS in al-Baghouz village in Syria, the pace of its military operations and bombings in northeastern Syria increased, especially in this November, which indicates that IS has emerged from the sleeper cells phase since 2019.

On 18 November, the local “Deir Ezzor 24” news platform reported that the “Regiment 137” commander of the Syrian regime’s forces, Brigadier General Bashir Salim Ismail, and a group of his members were killed in clashes with members of IS in the desert of Deir Ezzor province, east of Syria.

The IS organization claimed responsibility for the brigadier’s murder, and Amaq news agency, an IS-affiliated media outlet, reported on 21 November that its fighters killed brigadier Ismail and six of his soldiers after being ambushed by the IS fighters in the desert of al-Mayadeen, south of Deir Ezzor.

The agency clarified that the IS fighters had set the ambush in al-Mayadeen desert, managed to kill the brigadier and his soldiers, destroyed their four-wheel-drive vehicle equipped with heavy machine guns, then withdrew safely from the site.

Amaq agency reported on 12 November that IS fighters killed 12 elements of the Syrian regime’s forces, a member of the “National Defense” militia, and burned three barracks, north of al-Sukhnah city in the desert of Homs.

IS activity also extended to areas controlled by the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).

IS has taken the responsibility of assassinating the first lieutenant in the police forces, Hussein al-Jabali, who was killed in the al-Bab city, northeast of Aleppo, on the same day brigadier Ismail was killed, which was the fourth targeting adopted by IS in this November.

IS’s activity has never stopped in the first place

The Syrian researcher at the “Jusoor for Studies” center, Abdul Wahab Assi, told Enab Baladi that the IS organization went through the sleeper cells stage for only three months, between US President Donald Trump’s announcement in March 2019 of eliminating IS and the announcement of IS in June of the same year that it would start what it called as the “battle of attrition” after it resumed its activity in areas of security.

IS intensified its attacks on both sides of the Euphrates River, targeting the regime’s forces westward, and the SDF eastward, under the title “battle of attrition.”

In June 2019, Amaq agency said that the IS fighters carried out a number of operations in the SDF-controlled areas of al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, in addition to three attacks against the regime’s positions in the eastern desert of Homs.

The battle of attrition was against the IS opponents in both Iraqi and Syrian territory, through attacks in its desert enclaves or sleeper cells.

In a victory statement a year ago, the SDF did not hide the fact that elements of IS still exist in the form of sleeper cells, saying that they were fortified in remote areas of the Syrian desert and Iraqi cities, indicating that these cells could launch attacks at every available opportunity.

IS is active in a wide geographical area, as it is located in the heart of the Syrian desert, extending from the two eastern Hama and Homs countryside to the Iraqi borders, and from the two northern Syrian regions of Deir Ezzor and al-Raqqa to the Jordanian Syrian borders.

Following these battels by the IS’s sleeper cells, the pace of its attacks has increased differently as IS can secure ammunition, arm, and finance itself, according to Assi, through its security strategy, which originally derived from the experience gained during its activity in Iraq before 2013.

Factors allowing IS to return to the scene

According to Assi, members of the IS organization have qualities that enable them to live in a desert environment, unlike other parties to Syria’s conflict. This aided IS to maintain enclaves resistant to local, social, political, or military forces in the context of its plans to restructure itself and adapt to the surrounding environment, which is often hostile, according to Assi.

IS took advantage of the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which it described as “the crusaders’ worst nightmare,” by intensifying its attacks on several fronts and rearranging its lines, according to a research study published by the “Omran Center for Strategic Studies.”

The study mentioned that IS saw the virus effects as appropriate circumstances to take security tactics that suit its interests.

IS also has the possibility of penetrating local forces, whether governmental or non-governmental, according to Assi. IS benefits from the spread of corruption in these entities, which facilitates its security activity. The organization also exploits the absence of security governance, local security, and balanced policies toward the local population, which is an environment conducive to IS’s activity, Assi said.

Syria’s eastern region has geographical importance in financing IS in terms of controlling the oil fields there and launching attacks to arm and secure ammunition to its elements and cells.

Security tensions in the eastern region of Syria portend IS’s return, which becomes active during any instability period in the region. IS’s sleeper cells also play a role in maintaining internal security tensions in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province through numerous security operations and campaigns. These cells remain active in the region and carry out assassinations targeting civilians, Arab clans, and members of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

The IS still maintains a “low level” of operations within Syria’s eastern region, according to a report by the US Defense Department (Pentagon) released on 31 March.

According to the report, IS can take limited defensive measures in terms of scale, duration, and number of fighters.

The US administration is concerned about IS ability to reconstitute itself in the Syrian desert in a short time, “in a way exceeding the current US capabilities to neutralize it without a common ground to achieve this goal.”

The US Defense Department is also concerned about the development of security tensions and the failure of the eastern region administration represented by the AANES, owing to cultural and nationalist differences between the AANES and the Arab clans. These conditions are similar to those that allowed the emergence of the Islamic State organization, and their replication would give access to IS to rise again.

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