Resurgence of ISIS Activities in Syria: Motivations and Consequences

EPC | 19 Nov 2020

The Syrian Badia (Desert) region is witnessing intense and frequent operations by the Daesh (Islamic State, IS) organisation, which extend to vast areas and target multiple opponents. They are also characterised by speedy execution and striking specific targets. Despite the numerous campaigns launched by the actors being targeted by the terrorist organisation, this did not affect the offensive strength of the Organisation. Those operations raise a question about whether the Organisation, whose elimination was announced in March 2019 after liberating its last stronghold in the town of Al-Baghouz in eastern Syria, has regained its capability to operate, and the effect of this return in the context of developments in a region that abounds with problems and players.

This paper sheds light on the Organisation's activity and examines the circumstances and facts that have contributed to its resurgence, and the positions of the various actors thereon.

The impact of the geographical factor

The Syrian Badia was one of the most important strongholds of Daesh since its inception. After its defeat in Al-Baghouz in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF), the remnants of the Organisation moved to the Badia, where it possessed an infrastructure for settlement, and full knowledge of the details of its terrain, roads and places of shelter. The Daesh organisation began to settle in the Badia since late 2017 after the defeats it suffered in the countrysides of Deir Ezzor and Aleppo. Furthermore, in 2018, the Assad regime transferred thousands of the Organisation’s operatives from Damascus and the Yarmouk Basin in Daraa to the Badia.

The Badia has an area of nearly 80 thousand square kilometres. It is administratively distributed over seven Syrian governorates, namely: Deir Ezzor, Hama, Raqqa, Homs, Aleppo, Rif Dimashq (Rural Damascus) and Sweida. Daesh organisation is settled in certain areas in the Badia, especially in the mountains and valleys that abound in caves, which helps Daesh hide and take cover from aircraft strikes. Dust storms hit large areas of the Badia on a daily basis, blocking visibility and removing the traces of movements. The Organisation relies on night movement in transporting supplies and ammunition.

The movement of Daesh in the Badia is facilitated by the fact that large numbers of people from those areas have joined the Organisation. These know the entrances and exits of the Badia precisely, how to secure food and water supplies and routes to transport weapons, in addition to their capability to cope with the harsh desert conditions.[1]

New structure and strategy

Despite the killing of many of its main leaders and the dispersal of its operatives, the Organisation maintained the cohesion and integrity of its organisational structure and command and control system. The new leadership could not override the organisational legacy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, it built on it, but with a decentralised leadership. This made the Organisation enjoy relative freedom of movement through mobile groups that continue their attacks in areas of fragile security.

The Organisation sought to rebuild its combat groups in the east and west of the Euphrates in Syria, and in the desert and mountainous areas in western and northwestern Iraq. It formed small groups from the remnants of its forces, and withdrew most of its leaders to safe areas, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War.[2]

The Organisation was helped by the fact that it maintained a huge global financing network. According to the US Wall Street Journal, Daesh owns a group of companies and assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars across the Middle East and Central Asia. The US Treasury Department estimated the financial reserves of the Organisation at nearly 300 million dollars, while the United Nations (UN) announced that they are estimated at minimum 100 million dollars.

The Organisation has also adopted a new strategy that has transformed it from a quasi-state entity to gangs that refrain from occupying territories. The strategy also provides for the temporary waiver of the establishment of a "caliphate" at the present stage and the continuation of guerrilla warfare and terrorist activity. This shift gave it the flexibility to deploy forces without any obligation to manage the lives of the population in the areas under its control.[3]

Militarily, the Organisation adopted the method of rapid operations and lightning strikes, and ambushing convoys of forces and militias, relying on the logic of attrition, guerrilla warfare, lone wolf operations, recruitment and others, through small groups and sleeper cells deployed across uninhabited areas, and in the depths of the countryside and remote desert spaces, in addition to taking up position as sleeper cells inside cities.[4]

Daesh takes care to launch its operations in areas far from major cities to ensure that reinforcements and support do not reach the areas of operations. The method by which the Organisation carries out some of the attacks reveals that it has information about the movements of those it seeks to attack. This confirms the information that the Organisation has rehabilitated the performance of its security networks and is focusing on the security aspect to a large extent.[5]

The policy of confusing the opponents and dispersing their efforts is one of Daesh’s most prominent new strategies in the eastern Euphrates regions. It seeks to create tension between the Kurdish forces and the Arab tribes and employ them to push for a conflict between the two main components in this region, through assassinations, burning wheat crops and other actions that raise the level of tension between the Arabs and the Kurds and accelerate the conflict between them.

The factors that helped Daesh’s return

There are a number of factors that have helped Daesh regain its activity recently, mainly:

  • The continuing chaos in Syria (and Iraq as well), and the complications that prevent a political solution that ends the causes of the Syrian crisis, in light of the foreign interventions in the crisis, especially the Iranian and Turkish intervention. Through its experience, Daesh is aware that the security chaos and the atmosphere of political and religious grievance are catalysts to refresh its activity and increase its spread.[6]
  • Corruption in the Syrian and Iraqi security institutions. Information indicates that the security services in the two countries helped Daesh operatives escape from prisons. The Organisation also buys a portion of its weapons, in addition to food supplies, from those security services. What helps Daesh in its work is that it buys off the security checkpoints that are erected by many actors, security and militia, who only care about enrichment from the war, after they have become accustomed to this method over the past years.[7]
  • The coronavirus pandemic and the retrogressive policies of Daesh’s opponents. The spread of the coronavirus, and its impact on the active countries in the issue of the war on Daesh, especially the International Coalition, helped the Organisation restore its activity. The Organisation has benefited from the military retrogression of those actors and their satisfaction with what they have already achieved in terms of the destruction of the Organisation’s structures and the withdrawal of its remnants away from urban centers.[8]
  • The shift in the priorities of Daesh’s opponents, the issue of the complete elimination of the extremist Organisation no longer constituting a priority of the Organisation's main opponents (despite the assertion by the International Coalition against Daesh that it would remain in Syria pursuant to its commitment to fight what remains of the Organisation),[9] as a result of military and political developments. The issue of confronting the Iranian-backed militias targeting the US forces in Iraq has become a greater threat to the US. The protection by the Kurds of their areas against Turkey and the Syrian opposition factions has also become a priority ahead of the threat of Daesh. This shift has resulted in the diversion of most of the resources of those actors away from the war on Daesh.[10]

The winners and losers from the resurgence of Daesh

The emergence of Daesh and its transformation into an important player in the region has been linked to the interactions of the conflict between the different players. The emergence of Daesh and risks it poses have been employed by the players in the context of imposing their roles and achieving their direct interests. The emergence of Daesh has contributed to creating dangerous shifts in the course of events in Syria and Iraq, and in the roles of the players. There is an assumption that supports the possibility of updating the function of Daesh to face the emerging changes after the announcement of its end, given the results of this announcement in terms of benefits and potential impact on their projects and roles. This requires knowledge of the map of winners and losers from the revival of Daesh.

1. Winners

  • Iran and its militias: despite the strikes carried out by Daesh against the pro-Iran militias in the region, the rejuvenation of Daesh constitutes a salvation of Iran’s project and role as a result of the pressures to which they are subjected. Those pressures are no longer limited to the US and Israeli strikes as they now include Russia which has become a competitor to Iran in the regions of Badia and eastern Syria where most of the Syrian reserves of oil, gas and phosphates are located. On the pretext of the return of Daesh, Iran can preserve the structures of the Syrian militias it has created (the National Defense), as well as maintain the presence of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) forces in the border areas between Iraq and Syria, as well as preserve the Iraqi militias that are facing pressure by the government of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi to dissolve themselves and integrate into the Iraqi army and security frameworks.[11]
  • Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organisation for the Liberalisation of the Levant, HTS): the resurgence of Daesh helps remove the danger away from HTS, led by Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supporters), which seeks to integrate itself into the framework of the forces fighting extremism through its struggle with some hard-line organisations in northern Syria, such as the Hurras al-Din (Guardians of Religion) and focusing its media on pursuing some of the Daesh sleeper cells in the Nusra-controlled areas.[12]
  • Turkey: Turkey benefits from the return of Daesh to consolidate its occupation of the regions of northern and eastern Syria on the pretext that those areas are targeted by the Organisation. The return of the Organisation also helps to distract Russia, the US and the European countries that demand that Turkey withdraw its forces from the areas it recently occupied in eastern Syria (Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain). More importantly, the resurgence of the Organisation would distract the Kurds who have begun to launch a war of attrition against the Turkish presence in Afrin and the regions of eastern Syria.

2. Losers

  • The Kurdish Autonomous Administration: the return of Daesh contributes to the reshuffling of the cards for the Kurdish QSD. It is clear that Daesh places QSD at the top of its list of opponents. It is also active on the lines of contact extending between the Badia and the QSD-controlled areas. This drains the QSD capabilities and pushes them to allocate resources that exceed their capacity in light of the existence of an open front in the east with Turkey and the Turkish-backed factions. This means placing the QSD in a dilemma. Besides, the return of Daesh would raise the level of tension between the Kurds and Arabs in the areas east of the Euphrates as a result of the Kurdish administration's suspicions that Daesh is infiltrating the Arab regions and has sleeper cells in those areas, which would require the Kurds to tighten their security grip at the expense of consolidating confidence and peace with the Arab component.
  • Russia and the Syrian regime: the return of Daesh blows Russia's plans to control areas west of the Euphrates and remove Iranian militias as a prelude to complete control over the areas east of the Euphrates, whether through the US withdrawal as a result of an agreement with Russia, or by forcing US forces to withdraw after provoking the Arab tribes against them. Daesh targeted the Russian forces more than once, the most recent of which was the killing of Major General Vyacheslav Gladkikh, the military advisor in the Russian forces, which prompted Russia to launch the White Desert battle against Daesh, in which the forces supporting Russia, namely the Palestinian Al-Quds Brigade, the 25th Division, and some Wagner groups participated. However, the operation apparently did not achieve significant results. According to one opinion, Russia is facing a war of attrition in the face of Daesh which cannot be eliminated by Russian planes.[13] On the other hand, the return of Daesh causes the exhaustion of the Syrian regime's already exhausted forces. It also negatively affects the regime's plans to consolidate its presence in Deir Ezzor governorate and turn it into a starting point for its operations in eastern Syria after the Organisation focused its attacks on the province.

Conclusion

Daesh is regaining its activity and strength by benefiting from a set of facts and developments in the environment of the Syrian conflict, as follows:

  • Benefiting from the geography of the Syrian Badia, with its complex terrain and vast area, that has provided the Organisation with a safe haven against the strikes of opponents, and protected it from being targeted by air, which is the means that contributed most to the destruction of the Organisation’s structures in the urban centres that were under its control in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Tadmur (Palmyra), thus placing its opponents in an embarrassing situation, as they find it difficult to use other effective tools in countering it.
  • The defeat inflicted on Daesh forced the Organisation to adapt to the new reality and update its methods to suit this reality, including the decrease in the number of its affiliates, the decline in its sources of funding, and the difficulty of possessing heavy weapons. This was translated by following the method of rapid raids carried out by small groups, the reliance on the methods that are based on gathering information about the target to be struck, and the avoidance of taking positions in open places.
  • Daesh benefits from the decline of its importance in the considerations of opponents whose priorities have changed from the previous stage and whose conflicts escalated, in light of the conflict of geopolitical projects and conflicting political visions, which gives Daesh a comfortable margin to rebuild itself and renew its strength.

On the other hand, it seems an exaggeration to say that Daesh may regain the power it had years ago, for the following objective reasons:

  • The disappearance of Daesh’s glamour as a result of the defeats suffered by the Organisation, which cannot be restored. Besides, the conditions that allowed Daesh to establish the caliphate have gone forever.
  • The decline of the sectarian war in Syria and the region after Russia and the US controlled the bulk of the conflicts of the Syrian issue, and the transformation of the conflict into an interest-based conflict and an international and regional competition.
  • The transformations that came about in Daesh’s organisational structure and modus operandi. While the Organisation preserved its remnants from disappearing, those transformations put the Organisation in a phase of extinction, turning it into dispersed gangs in the Badia that will face their fate one after the other.

While Daesh's activity is likely to increase in the next stage, as a result of the preoccupation of its opponents with their own struggles, it is unlikely that the Organisation will turn into a dominant force in the stage ahead, given that its survival is contingent on the continuation of the Syrian crisis unresolved. The Organisation has turned into a component of the crisis, including the issue of extremist organisations that benefit from the state of political vacuum in parts of Syria and which are not expected to have either presence or influence after the solution.

References

[1] “ISIS Returns Through the Syrian Desert”, The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), May 2019. Available at: https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/isis-returns-through-the-syrian-desert

[2] ISIS' Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency, June 2019, Institute for the Study of War, June 2019:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep19572.1.pdf

[3] ISIS’s current strategy: Relinquishing territorial control and focusing on intensifying local activity in the various provinces, mainly in Iraq, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC), 26 July 2020: https://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/isiss-current-strategy-relinquishing-territorial-control-and-focusing-on-intensifying-local-activity-in-the-various-provinces-mainly-in-iraq/

[4] “Daesh expands globally despite its defeat in Syria: annual U.S. State Department report on terrorism”, 24.ae news website, 2 November 2019.

[5] Ziad Ashkar, “Daesh’s return still at its beginning: thwarting it is still possible”, 24.ae news website, 26 May 2020.

[6] Ameen al-Assi, “The confrontations of Daesh and the regime in the Syrian Badia raise questions”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 6 July 2020.

[7] “What are Russia's goals in fighting Daesh in the Syrian Badia?”, Al Ayyam Syria newspaper, 26 September 2020.

[8] “The risks of the return of Daesh and the investments of players therein”, Nedaa Syria, 9 June 2020.

[9] “The International Coalition: We will remain in Syria until we end Daesh”, Al Etihad Press, 18 November 2020.

[10] “The Pentagon is wary of the resurgence of Daesh activity in Syria”, the London-based Al Arab newspaper, 23 October 2019.

[11] Mujahed al-Taee, “The return of ISIS in Iraq: a lifeline for the militias”, Noon Post website, 4 May 2020.

[12] “The risks of the return of Daesh and the investments of players therein”, op. cit.

[13] Ameen Al-Assi, “The ‘White Desert’: Russian campaign against ISIS in the Syrian Badia”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 27 August 2020.

 

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