A month after IS ‘caliphate’ defeated, challenges aplenty
Sleeper cells, prisons teeming with militants, camps crammed with their wives and children — perils abound in Syria, nearly a month after the IS group was declared defeated.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced victory over the IS proto-state on March 23, after a nearly five-year battle against the militant group.
The elimination of the physical “caliphate” closed a long chapter in the Syrian conflict, but the SDF and the US-led military coalition have warned the fight is far from over.
IS is still able “to carry out regular attacks on a weekly basis”, said Tore Hamming, an expert on terror movements at the European University Institute. Even after losing their last scrap of territory in the eastern village of Baghuz, the militants retain a presence in Syria’s vast desert and hideouts elsewhere in the country.
Last week alone, IS militants killed 35 fighters loyal to Syria’s government in 48 hours — feeding into a regime death toll over two days in excess of 60 at the hands of all factions — the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Before that, on April 9, IS claimed a double bombing that killed 13 people in the SDF-held city of Raqa.
The White House has said that it would keep 400 US troops in Syria “for a period of time”, after initially shocking allies in December by announcing a full withdrawal of 2,000 soldiers.
But Hamming said this diminished contingent would struggle to deal with the lingering threat. “IS is still very active and will remain so. The small number of US forces will not solve that entirely,” he said.
Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, warns that IS still holds sizeable sway over “networks of local support”.
“A big part of the IS strategy to regrow is that it continues to have strong ties into some of the local tribes in eastern Syria and western Iraq,” he said.
As both regime and US-backed forces seek to hunt down IS sleeper cells on the run, the Kurdish authorities in northeast Syria face another major challenge. Thousands of alleged fighters — including hundreds of foreigners — are now being held in Kurdish-run jails, while their relatives languish in overcrowded camps for the displaced.
Their numbers have created a major headache for the semi-autonomous Kurdish administration, which now wants to put suspected militants on trial. “We have called for an international tribunal to be formed to try these terrorists,” top foreign affairs official Abdel Karim Omar said.