Fears mount of IS comeback in eastern Syria, experts say ‘will be more dangerous’

A group of the US-led SDF fighters in the eastern Deir Ezzor governorate - 1 May 2018 (Reuters)

A group of the US-led SDF fighters in the eastern Deir Ezzor governorate - 1 May 2018 (Reuters)


“Observing what is happening since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS), which was declared in March 2019, confirms that the group still has control and an emirate,” says Adnan al-Najri, 38, from the eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.

The civil activist believes that the conditions that led to the emergence of the Islamic State still exist, considering that the presence of Iranian militias and the Syrian regime forces in part of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, as competitors to IS in the region, is no less dangerous than the presence of the group for the residents of the region.

Residents of areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fear a possible IS return, the more uncertain the political situation in those areas becomes, which always increases in complexity with the intensification of the dispute between the US-led SDF and Turkey, which threatened military operations targeting the region.

Al-Najri considered that the IS group was expelled from the area not a short time ago but that it is still able to carry out attacks, and the SDF has not succeeded in establishing security and stability in it, not even in improving the living and service conditions of the population.

The spread of unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, lack of security and stability, and the continuity of the spread of extremist ideology among the population even after the defeat of IS are all conditions that help its return in one way or another, according to a number of Raqqa residents interviewed by Enab Baladi.

Raqqa-based psychologist Abdulmohsen Suleiman said the extremist ideas that IS left in areas under its control would remain as long as the authorities running the area do not work to remove them properly.

He pointed out that the area controlled by IS needs development projects that create job opportunities for young people to keep them away from unemployment so that they can not be used in IS revival.

During the period of its control over areas in several Syrian and Iraqi governorates between 2014 and 2019, IS managed to subject the population, especially males, to Shariah courses in which the extremist ideology adopted by the IS organization was taught to leave a noticeable impact for those ideas even after the group’s demise.

The hardline group is still launching operations inside Syrian territory, as it announced on 15 July the results of its operations over a week in the areas of the spread of its security cells around the world.

According to the announcement published by IS through its official news site, al-Naba, the IS group launched four operations in Deir Ezzor governorate, which resulted in the killing of three members of the SDF and wounding of another in the town of Thebyan, east of the governorate.

IS comeback, more dangerous

The Syrian regime forces and allied Iranian militias, on the one hand, and the Kurdish-led SDF backed by the International Coalition, on the other hand, have shared the areas controlled by the Islamic State in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and the eastern countryside of Aleppo.

This was followed by the regime forces and Iranian militias carrying out many massacres and the arrest of large numbers of civilians, accusing them of operating within the ranks of the IS group during the period of its control over the region.

It is a policy that does not differ much from that of the US-backed SDF forces, as they launch frequent raids and arrest campaigns, in which civilians are killed, and arrest others on the pretext of belonging to IS, then return to release them over tribal mediation.

The human rights activist Jalal Khudair, of Raqqa city, considered that the return of the Islamic State may be more dangerous to the local residents, in addition to the possibility of many young men joining its ranks for fear of its influence on the one hand or because they did not abandon the extremist ideas that were implanted in them several years ago.

The rights advocate pointed out that the presence of thousands of former IS members who are in SDF prisons without trial and who indirectly threatens to release them if it is subjected to an expected military operation by Turkey also raises concern about the possibility of the IS group’s return.

The human rights defender stated that the escape of IS members from SDF prisons may be a repetition of the Iraqi Taji prison scenario that occurred in 2013 and led to the escape of Islamist prisoners from prison, who later formed the Islamic State group and took control of two-thirds of Syria and Iraq.

These concerns intersect with what Washington sees, as the Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Acting Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Timothy Betts, said on13 July that approximately 4,000 to 5,000 non-Syrian fighters are detained in northeast Syria.

He added, in a statement, that tens of thousands of their family members reside in crowded displaced person camps. These staggering numbers point to serious and ongoing security and humanitarian threats to the region and broader global community.

Betts recalled a famous prison break that took place in 2006 in the Political Security Central Prison in Sana’a, Yemen. Among the dozens of escapees were Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Qasim Raymi, who would lead al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for the entire decade of the 2010s.

In 2013, a coordinated attack freed more than 600 prisoners – mostly experienced fighters – from the Taji and Abu Ghraib detention facilities in Iraq. This attack was the pinnacle of a years-long strategy that released thousands of fighters who would go on to participate in the Syrian conflict. Several of these fighters were key figures in the founding of IS.

Betts said, “I mentioned these key moments in the history of our counterterrorism efforts because we face a similar dilemma in the Middle East today, only on a much larger scale. ISIS knows that prison breaks work. They are time-tested and generate long-lasting results. That is why, in January this year, ISIS tried to free thousands of its fighters from a detention facility in Hasakah, in northeast Syria.”

SDF takes IS threat into account

An official in the Future Syria Party, which is part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), told Enab Baladi that the dangers of the IS group’s return to the region are directly related to the Turkish threats of a military operation against the SDF in northern and eastern Syria.

The official, whose name has been withheld as he is not authorized to speak to the media, believes that the US and the International Coalition are directly responsible for deterring Turkey from carrying out any military action against the SDF’s areas of influence, as the escalation will lead to the escape of thousands of IS prisoners.

On 19 June, the North Press Agency quoted the head of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), Ilham Ahmed, that the 30-kilometer distance that Turkey is talking about controlling contains prisons and camps for IS fighters and their families.

She considered that the military operation means a direct threat to regional and international security, accusing Turkey of “undermining the national security of the Syrians” and that it creates an opportunity to revive IS in Syria.

In a clearer threat from the Autonomous Administration, the deputy co-chair of the executive council of the AANES, Hassan Koujar, warned the international community that the “Administration” was not responsible for the IS prisoners who are in the prisons of northeastern Syria, saying that “they will be left to do as they please.”

In a statement to Hawar News Agency on 8 July, Koujar said that everyone should assume their responsibilities towards IS and the camps that contain families of IS fighters, describing them as “explosive bombs.”

Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Raqqa Hussam al-Omar contributed to this report.


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