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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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:
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.
 “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
 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
 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/
 “Daesh expands globally despite its defeat in Syria: annual U.S. State Department report on terrorism”, 24.ae news website, 2 November 2019.
 Ziad Ashkar, “Daesh’s return still at its beginning: thwarting it is still possible”, 24.ae news website, 26 May 2020.
 Ameen al-Assi, “The confrontations of Daesh and the regime in the Syrian Badia raise questions”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 6 July 2020.
 “What are Russia's goals in fighting Daesh in the Syrian Badia?”, Al Ayyam Syria newspaper, 26 September 2020.
 “The risks of the return of Daesh and the investments of players therein”, Nedaa Syria, 9 June 2020.
 “The International Coalition: We will remain in Syria until we end Daesh”, Al Etihad Press, 18 November 2020.
 “The Pentagon is wary of the resurgence of Daesh activity in Syria”, the London-based Al Arab newspaper, 23 October 2019.
 Mujahed al-Taee, “The return of ISIS in Iraq: a lifeline for the militias”, Noon Post website, 4 May 2020.
 “The risks of the return of Daesh and the investments of players therein”, op. cit.
 Ameen Al-Assi, “The ‘White Desert’: Russian campaign against ISIS in the Syrian Badia”, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 27 August 2020.
EPC | 14 Jul 2021
Diyari Salih | 13 Jul 2021
EPC | 06 Jul 2021