Having seized control over Islamic State’s last strongholds in Al-Baghuz in the eastern Euphrates in March 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the USA declared victory over Islamic State. Despite the US assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of Islamic State, in late October 2019, new warnings have been issued regarding the possible return of Islamic State to Syria, given the chaos and conflict on Syrian soil between various national, regional, and international forces.
Current status of Islamic State
According to US sources, SDF is holding some ten thousand IS members and leaders in prisons in the eastern Euphrates, in addition to 70,000 IS families in Al-Hol camp in Hasaka Governorate. For its part, SDF has claimed that hundred of IS members are still in hiding in the form of “sleeper cells” in areas under the organization’s control.
Media reports indicate that many of the organization’s members and leaders have been able to infiltrate areas held by Syrian government forces in the western Euphrates in exchange for large bribes, paid to SDF forces on one side of the river and to government forces on the other. Press reports also claim that hundreds of IS elements, mostly Iraqis, entered Syria from Iraq following the conflict at Al-Baghuz, and joined IS cells in desert and rural areas, which allowed them to benefit from the cells’ local knowledge, including regarding places to hide. The Turkish authorities, meanwhile, have accused the SDF of releasing hundreds of IS members and their families or turning a blind eye to their escape following the launch of Turkey’s Peace Spring operation in the eastern Euphrates, in an attempt to “blackmail the USA and other western nations into forcing Turkey to halt the operation”. According to the US Special Envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, Washington believes that some 15,000 IS elements are still at large in Syria and Iraq.
All indications confirm that Islamic State is still alive, despite the disintegration of its institutional, administrative, and military structures in Syria and Iraq. NATO shares this assessment, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said that, despite its military defeat, Islamic State has begun to reorganize its ranks.
According to several reports, IS elements are currently hiding in the Syrian desert, which extends from Al-Bukamal in the east, to Al-Sokhna in the north, to Palmyra, the southern Palmyra mountains, and the villages of Al-Qaryatayn and Muhan in the eastern Qalamoun Mountains, and down to Al-Dumayr and Talul Al-Safa in the south, covering an area of around 14,000 km2. This region includes forested areas and numerous caves, which provide ample cover for IS elements. The general roughness of the terrain has also prevented Russian forces, the Syrian regime, and their allies from carrying out large-scale operations in the area.
Although Islamic State has recently carried out several attacks and ambushes against Syrian and SDF forces, most experts do not believe that the group will be able to seize direct control over important urban areas in Syria in the foreseeable future, as it did in previous years. The group is likely to rely instead on sleeper cells in urban areas and on hidden gangs in desert areas that will launch the occasional attack or ambush.
The rejection of Syrian society
Islamic State’s main problem was its inability to establish itself in Syrian society, owing to cultural and ideological differences and the group’s extremist nature. Although in Sunni areas, in particular the urban zones of South Damascus, East Aleppo, Deir Al-Zour, and Raqqa, Islamic State presented itself as the protector of Sunnis in the face of Shia attack, taking advantage of the atrocities committed by Assad’s forces and the sectarianism of the Iranian axis, this was never enough to convince the Syrians to accept or sympathize with the group. Islamic State’s relationship with local communities always remained one of domination and submission. This contributed greatly to the exodus of residents from areas under its control, particularly given its tendency to terrorize local populations, such as when it massacred the Al-Shu’aytat tribes in the desert around Deir Al-Zour in 2014.
Islamic State focused primarily on fighting other Islamist organizations, such Jabhat Al-Nusrah, which it saw as its competitors. Having eradicated a number of armed groups in eastern Syria, especially in Raqqa and Deir Al-Zour, Jabhat Al-Nusrah was subsequently forced out of those areas by Islamic State. The two organizations developed something of an armistice in the later stages, however, especially as various currents within Jabhat Al-Nusrah and other Islamist organizations began to see the conflict with Islamic State as a distraction from their goal of defeating the Syrian regime, a view that has been adopted by a number of sharia officials in Islamist organizations.
This had no real impact on the approach taken by Islamic State, based on combatting its immediate enemies, nor its goal of establishing its own caliphate. This idea has been the focus of various alliances and struggles, and has been the key guiding force behind the organization’s actions in Syria.
The future of Islamic State
Islamic State underwent severe changes as a result of attacks launched against it by various parties, resulting in losses on three interconnected levels: the loss of land under its complete control; the loss of most of its cadres and top leaders, including the head of the organization, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; and the loss of all of its sources of funding, derived from oil and gas trading and taxation.
These losses had an impact on the organization’s status, as it tried to adapt to the new status quo by reorganizing itself as an underground network in Iraq and as a network of “gangs” in Syria. This coincided with a change in the discourse within the organization, from one of evangelization through conquest and continued expansion to one of patience during trials and tribulations, persistence, and refusal to flee.
These new policies are unlikely to be successful in rebuilding Islamic State’s former strength and restoring its spirit, as the circumstances on which it initially built its strength and structure have since changed completely, and the Syrian war is no longer attracting young fighters from around the world. Moreover, Islamic State’s failure in both its conflict management and its administration of areas under its control was one of the key factors in its demise.
Over the coming period, Islamic State is likely to lose the rest of its cadres, either as a result of their liquidation during the ongoing operations carried out by the USA and the SDF, or as a result of them fleeing one by one to Turkey or joining other extremist organizations in Syria or in other battlegrounds.
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