SDF draws up rules of engagement to absorb Islamic State operations

A member of the Anti-Terror Units (YAT) affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria - February 2, 2024 (SDF Media Center)

A member of the Anti-Terror Units (YAT) affiliated with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria - February 2, 2024 (SDF Media Center)


Enab Baladi – Reem Hamoud

Recently, the pace of the operations by the Islamic State organization in Syria, especially in the northeastern regions, has intensified. While these operations are recording record numbers of deaths and injuries, the security operations organized by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to deter the organization have not matched their scale.

The Islamic State’s operations in northeastern Syria have reached the centers of cities controlled by the SDF, with the organization claiming it carried out two attacks in the Salhiya neighborhood in the city of al-Hasakah for the first time in years, targeting two members of the SDF. This was preceded by a similar attack about a week earlier in the Mufti neighborhood in the same city, in addition to a group of individuals throwing a grenade on February 27 at the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) in Qamishli, with no injuries reported.

Since the escalation of operations in northeastern Syria, the SDF, who control the area, have organized two security operations to combat this activity, one in the al-Hol camp and the other in the city of al-Hasakah. This comes amid previous rumors reported by the American magazine “Foreign Policy” on January 25, quoting unnamed US officials, that the White House was no longer interested in continuing what it sees as an “unnecessary” mission in Syria, and active internal discussions are underway to determine how and when the withdrawal could occur.

The operations against the SDF have not been different from those carried out by the Islamic State organization over the past years, but their intensity was different and included areas in provinces that had not recorded attacks for about a year, such as Raqqa and al-Hasakah.

Pressure from multiple sides

The disproportionate response to the attacks launched by the Islamic State organization in the regions of northeastern Syria by the SDF was notable, especially when it penetrated the cities after targets were previously concentrated in rural areas and the outskirts of cities.

Osama Sheikh Ali, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that the SDF has set rules of engagement with the Islamic State organization and overlooks some of the operations and the levies demanded by the organization from farmers in the city of Deir Ezzor, which the organization refers to as “zakat,” to avoid provoking it further, which may lead to it conducting wider operations, especially since the environment is ripe after the war between the Israeli occupation and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which has continued since October 7, 2023.

The absence of SDF pressure on the Islamic State organization is due to several reasons, including not pushing it towards escalating operations in the depths of its controlled areas especially since the Iranian militias are ready to provide support, which in turn puts pressure on the US forces to withdraw through opening doors for the organization to weaken the SDF, according to researcher Sheikh Ali.

The researcher believes that the SDF is trying to maintain the rules of engagement and absorb these operations to avoid transferring the security chaos to the heart of Raqqa city from the northern outskirts and the region around al-Hasakah city, because the chaos, if it spreads, has a significant impact on the presence of the SDF in the region being a border area with Turkey, which could be exploited leading to a certain loss for the SDF.

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, in turn, told Enab Baladi that the increase in the rate of Islamic State operations in the SDF control areas in general, and particularly in Deir Ezzor, suggests a deliberate reduction in SDF activities in these areas.

Reducing activities includes decreasing the number of patrols tasked with monitoring the movements and activities of the Islamic State, as well as the number of military forces at checkpoints responsible for surveillance operations, for two reasons, according to Shawakh.

The researcher continued that the first reason for the SDF withdrawal is due to attacks by tribal fighters and Iranian militias from areas controlled by the Syrian regime in Deir Ezzor, while the second reason is to reinforce its ranks in the far northeastern areas in the cities of Qamishli and al-Malikiyah in al-Hasakah province and its surroundings.

Shawakh mentioned that the withdrawal of forces was due to Turkish attacks that the areas were subjected to, citing a briefing report from the International Coalition Forces (ICF) from the beginning of October to the end of December 2023.


The escalation in the intensity of the Islamic State’s operations was a natural and expected result since more than about three months after the SDF methodically withdrew from some areas.

Anas Shawakh, Researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies


SDF attempts to draw attention

Researcher Anas Shawakh pointed out that talks about the withdrawal of US forces led the SDF to make what can be described as “extortionate” moves by reducing their activities against the Islamic State to show their value and the importance of their security operations and the US forces in their control areas.

From Shawakh’s point of view, there is no real decision or intention for US forces to withdraw, as the International Coalition Forces are in Syria to undertake the task of defeating the Islamic State, which is still present and carries out targets, in addition to the existence of camps and prisons housing elements and families of Islamic State members, which poses the biggest challenge that the United States must consider before taking any steps to withdraw from northeastern Syria.

Researcher Osama Sheikh Ali sees that the SDF exploits the operations of the Islamic State to influence Western public opinion by frightening them about the danger of the organization’s continued presence and activity in northeastern Syria.

The International Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (consisting of 86 countries) has been assisting the SDF, whose leadership is Kurdish, and includes Arab fighters and factions, in expelling the Islamic State organization from vast areas of land in northeastern Syria over the past seven years.

The Islamic State is present

The incident of individuals throwing a grenade at the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) in the city of Qamishli, which had not witnessed widespread clashes in the past due to the city’s distance from conflict areas, is a clear indicator by the Islamic State organization that it is waiting for the moment when it can reorganize its military ranks and operations to enlist more people, especially after the Gaza Strip war which aids in the matter of public rallying, according to researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Osama Sheikh Ali.

The researcher added that the organization tries to show itself to the local components in northeastern Syria, and is still in the area, through the operations it conducts and the levies it demands from farmers in the city of Deir Ezzor, and any security breach or decrease in security pressure will see the return of the organization, especially after discussions on a possible American withdrawal.

According to Anas Shawakh, the possibility that part of the increase in the targeting rate from the SDF is connected to a decision by the Islamic State organization itself is valid, as it takes advantage of the complex security situation to increase its activity and strengthen its influence in northeastern Syria.

The SDF announced, on December 27, 2023, that its forces, with the support of the International Coalition, carried out a precise joint security operation against one of the “most dangerous elements of the (Islamic State) terrorist organization.”

It added that the operation was carried out in the al-Hol camp east of al-Hasakah, inside one of the tents there, and that they managed to arrest “Abu Obaidah al-Iraqi,” who is responsible for the camp in the Islamic State organization.

Increase in operational tempo

Over the past years, it was possible to estimate the weekly operations of the Islamic State organization, as they did not exceed 20 targets a week, and in extreme cases, 10 of them took place in SDF-controlled areas in northeastern Syria.

Since the beginning of the current year, the operations of the organization have exceeded their previous limits, as the latter announced carrying out 32 operations in the first week of 2024, returning to announce 34 operations during the following week, distributed between the areas of control of the Syrian regime and the SDF.

UN experts believe that the Islamic State has between 5,000 and 7,000 members in Syria and Iraq and that its fighters in Afghanistan currently pose the most serious “terrorist” threat, while the Islamic State attempts to rebuild itself and recruit new people, particularly from camps in northeastern Syria, according to a report published by the American Associated Press news agency, and also from “vulnerable communities” in countries neighboring Syria.



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