How Islamic State’s combat turned into a war of numbers in Syria

A banner in the city of Raqqa back when the Islamic State (IS) was in control of eastern Syria (AFP)

A banner in the city of Raqqa back when the Islamic State (IS) was in control of eastern Syria (AFP)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

With the beginning of the new year, Islamic State (IS) attacks in Syria and Iraq have become the largest of their kind in terms of their locations and the scale of damage they have caused. These attacks coincided with repeated announcements by the International Coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) of the results of their operations against IS during 2022.

The figures announced by both parties are fairly large in relation to the scale of the attacks and operations observed on the ground, especially since the areas of northeastern Syria have experienced sporadic instability as a result of Turkish threats of military action targeting SDF, leading to the repeated suspension of the latter’s actions in fighting the Islamic State alongside the coalition.

With the security operations launched by the International Coalition-backed SDF, offset by security campaigns carried out by the Syrian regime in the desert of Deir Ezzor against the IS, indicators of the activity of the organization’s cells remain particularly high near the border strip between Syria and Iraq.

This raises a question about the effectiveness of these operations or the accuracy of the resulting figures demonstrating their outcome, as opposed to other questions about the accuracy of the figures occasionally announced by IS in light of its adoption of blitzkrieg (lightning warfare) and ambush warfare.

IS does not claim responsibility for all of its operations

Targeting and assassination operations have always taken place in the eastern region of Syria, in which the geography of influence overlaps between the US-backed SDF and the regime forces backed by Russia and Iran. Some of these operations were registered against unknown persons because no party claimed responsibility for them, even months after their occurrence.

The same scenario was repeated in southern Syria when local factions (formerly opposition factions) launched a security campaign targeting IS cells in the region. It later became clear that the campaign had toppled the Islamic State’s leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Qurashi, according to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), at the end of November 2022.

The common thing between the two regions is that the IS did not comment on these operations. Even when it announced the death of its leader in Syria hours before the US-issued announcement, IS did not specify the geographical location of his death or the party that killed him.

Khalil al-Miqdad, a researcher in the affairs of jihadist groups, told Enab Baladi that the organization had never claimed responsibility for an operation that it had not actually implemented. Quite the contrary, IS had avoided claiming responsibility for some operations for security reasons, which could be captured from the policy adopted by Islamic State media over the past years.

On the other hand, the Syrian regime has repeatedly tried to exploit IS attacks, especially those targeting SDF-held positions in northeastern Syria, by labeling them “popular resistance against American occupation.”

The Syrian regime’s media has previously described IS-perpetrated operations in Syria as acts of “popular resistance,” which has been repeatedly condemned by the SDF.

Al-Miqdad attributed the reasons for the recently increased IS operations in Syria and Iraq to the assumption of power in the organization by a new leader, Abu Hussein al-Qurashi, who was announced as the new IS leader following the death of his predecessor.

The policy and nature of IS’ actions have changed over the past years with the changes at the leadership level; IS’ successive leaders have attempted to leave their “personal mark” through the quality of their operations. This was the case with the operation carried out by IS at the Ghweran prison in al-Hasakah when its fighters barricaded themselves in the prison for about a month and managed to inflict significant damages upon the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They also managed to smuggle a large number of IS-affiliated fighters who were prisoners at the aforementioned prison, according to the researcher.

According to SDF-released official information at the time, nearly 500 people were killed as a result of the confrontations, including 120 prison staff and SDF fighters, in addition to 374 prisoners and IS fighters, and four civilians.

Statistics for a non-existent war

On 29 December 2022, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced the outcome of its operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during 2022, stating that its operations have “undermined” the organization’s ability to direct attacks and have wiped out several commanders, including the organization’s emir and dozens of other regional commanders.

Commenting on these statistics, researcher Khalil al-Miqdad said that they actually reflect a war that does not exist in Syria and Iraq, especially since the coalition campaigns are limited to airdrops here and raids there and during separate periods of time.

If we were inclined towards addressing the security campaigns launched by the local parties in Syria, namely by the Syrian regime and SDF, we would say that such campaigns have not yielded results over the past years.

While the organization continues to focus its targets on all those who are present on the ground, including the regime and SDF forces, its sworn enemy (the US) has not lost even one soldier in the past years.

Al-Miqdad believes that the security war in the region extending between Syria and Iraq is unlikely to end in the near future. IS has prepared itself for a protracted war, leading the International Coalition to be fully prepared through its tight positioning in Syria.

The organization has always changed its operational strategy in Syria over the past years, shifting up and down, but will continue along these lines.

Substantial figures

In conjunction with the US’ announcement of the outcome of its security operations in Syria, the SDF announced the launch of a new security campaign against IS cells in northeastern Syria, dubbed Operation Al-Jazeera Thunderbolt. This security campaign was accompanied by an SDF-imposed state of emergency and a curfew in Raqqa following an IS attack that killed six SDF elements.

Last week, an attack launched by IS on an SDF-held position in Raqqa resulted in 16 deaths and injuries, according to the Islamic State (IS).

Meanwhile, the SDF said that the attack resulted in the death of 6 of its elements and the injury of several others.

This was preceded by attacks that left 17 regime forces dead, carried out by IS cells in northeastern Syria, according to the Islamic State’s official newspaper. The Syrian regime had not commented on the attacks until the moment of writing this report.

A CENTCOM-released statement on 29 December 2022 stated that US forces carried out 313 operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria during 2022.

In Syria, the statistics mentioned 108 joint operations with Coalition Forces and 14 unilateral US operations, killing 466 IS operatives and arresting 215 others, according to the said statement.

In Iraq, 191 joint operations with Coalition Forces killed at least 220 IS elements and led to the arrest of 159 others.


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