Following the battle of Baghuz on 9 February 2019 by the US-led Coalition via its Kurdish partners the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria close to the border with Iraq, the Kurds claimed that many prisoners and surrendering combatants were mostly foreign Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
They claimed the end of the IS presence in the area, leading many to believe that the role of this terrorist group had ended in Syria, especially after its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and other top commanders had either been killed or eliminated from the scene.
However, over recent months it has become apparent that IS is still alive and undefeated in the region and that the group was not defeated by this or other battles led by the Kurds and the US-led Coalition. It has revived itself through new leadership strategies relying on urban warfare in which it is highly skilled.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly has said that IS “lives on and has reappeared in Syria and Iraq in some form,” adding that “since the fall of Baghuz in the Euphrates Valley, the last IS stronghold, we now see IS regaining power in Syria.”
During the past eight years and since the creation of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in April 2013, the group took control of large areas of Syria having a Sunni majority. Beginning in western Iraq and moving across to eastern and northeastern Syria and cities such as Raqqa, the group took control of large parts of the country, even going as far as areas with Alawite minorities that support the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
The group then defended this territory by fighting on several fronts, requiring it to have regular forces and commanders with strategic and tactical experience in traditional combat.
It did not attack regime forces or towns with Alawite minorities, and Syrian opposition and leaked intelligence reports show that regime intelligence agencies were able to infiltrate IS ranks with large numbers of officers and trainers.
The group relied on commanders who had originally served with Al-Qaeda and had lived in Iran. Its actions were a key element in convincing the West of Al-Assad’s claim that he was fighting terrorism and jihadist groups.
After its defeats at Baghuz and elsewhere, the group today is making a comeback, targeting the Syrian regime, Iranian and Russian military bases in Syria, and relying on local jihadist commanders who want to fight the Syrian opposition, regime, Iran and Russia.
In 2020, the terrorist group targeted the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies in the Syrian desert, making it an extensive battleground. It also attacked the Kurdish SDF east of the Euphrates River in Deir Al-Zor and areas under opposition control.
It adopted a strategy of small attacks in desert and uninhabited areas, taking advantage of the differences between the other parties. This was unlike in Iraq, where Iraqi forces under coalition air cover were able to dismantle IS cells by relying on local informants who reported any activities.
At the end of last year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a local rights group, published a report on IS activity in Syria showing that the group was present across 4,000 square km of Syria, with most operations focused on areas around the cities of Aleppo, Hamah and Raqqah.
IS had killed 780 regime soldiers and militias through ambushes and other clashes, including 108 men from Iran-backed militias who were not of Syrian origin, the SOHR said. Some 507 IS combatants had also been killed during these operations.
The SOHR reported that IS had carried out more than 480 attacks in areas under SDF control, killing 208 people including 122 SDF members and civilians.
Syrian opposition member Khaled Al-Matlaq said that “the reappearance of IS in the Syrian desert clearly indicates that the group is alive and well and is operating according to a strategy of urban warfare, using units of no more than five members and sleeper cells in areas under opposition control.”
“This method cannot be countered by traditional combat methods because it relies on close-range fighting and intelligence gathering among locals. Aerial, electronic and visual surveillance locate IS hideouts only with great difficulty due to decoys and the group’s minimal use of modern communication technology,” he said.
The opposition believes that although IS targets regime forces, the regime is benefitting from the return of IS. According to opposition military sources, Syrian intelligence agencies have trained troops wearing IS uniforms to use the group’s tactics and send them into areas not yet under government control.
Iyad Barakat of the opposition forces said that “the Kurdish SDF released a large number of IS fighters and their families from camps and detention centres in northeastern Syria, under the pretext that it could no longer protect these camps. But releasing associates of a terrorist group without prosecuting or rehabilitating them will only lead to new terrorist groups.”
On 5 October last year, the SDF announced the release of some 25,000 people from the Al-Hawl Refugee Camp as part of a blanket clemency deal, including IS members and their families. A statement claimed those who were released had not been involved in combat and had regretted joining IS.
On 15 and 19 October, hundreds more were freed from 20 SDF jails, where more than 10,000 IS fighters were languishing, including 2,000 foreign combatants whose countries of origin refused their return.
Media sources say that the Syrian Kurds have not been straightforward in addressing the issue of IS fighters. While complaining that various countries are refusing the return of their nationals, the Kurds refused to hand over a group of more than 25 IS members who were German nationals, to Germany.
The Kurds want to make political gains out of this issue, such sources say, since they have failed to make any tangible gains in the political process in Syria, either by acquiring international legitimacy or being accepted by local tribes.
“Tens of thousands of people detained in SDF camps and jails have been radicalised due to terrible conditions,” Barakat said. “The Kurdish forces use these prisoners as leverage and would not hesitate to use them to serve Kurdish interests, even if this meant releasing them so they could join terrorist groups.”
Iraq and Syria are fertile ground for the rebirth and revival of terrorist groups, since both countries suffer from a power vacuum and lack of national and social unity. This has been exacerbated by the presence of many armed groups, foreign interference, near absent sovereignty and a lack of democratic rule.
Under these conditions, the fight against terrorist groups in the two countries has been a near-futile process, with the threat now posed by them reaching beyond local borders and across the region as a whole.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly