“Islamic State” in 2020 | 780 regime soldiers and loyalists killed in the Syrian desert, and nearly 500 operations by ISIS cells in SDF-controlled areas leave over 200 persons dead
Although the Counter-ISIS International Coalition command and the leaders of Syria Democratic Forces announced the elimination of the so-called Caliphate of the “Islamic State” in March 2019, recent developments on the ground indicate that ISIS has not been fully eliminated. ISIS continues launching military operations and counter attacks which are met with security campaigns by Coalition forces and their Syria Democratic Forces partner throughout SDF-controlled areas, in addition to military operations by Russian and regime forces against ISIS cells in areas under their control. However, ISIS cells are still able to exploit opportunities to create security vacuum and carry out assassinations, which clearly indicate that the “Islamic State” is still alive and kicking.
In the following report, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) presents details and statistics concerning ISIS operations and activities throughout Syria in 2020.
Areas controlled by Syrian regime and its allies: nearly 1,300 fatalities among ISIS, regime forces and loyalists
Being present in an area of some 4,000 square kilometres in the Syrian desert, ISIS sought in 2020 to confirm its influence through successive attacks on regime forces and their Syrian and non-Syrian proxy militias, sending direct messages that it is still strong enough to combat regime forces and loyalists. It is worth noting that ISIS is still present in scattered areas in the Syrian desert, including the area from Jabal Abu Rajmayn area in north-eastern Palmyra to Deir Ezzor desert and western countryside, Al-Sukhnah desert and an area to the north of the administrative border of Al-Suwaidaa province.
In 2020, ISIS carried out intensive and almost-daily operations in the desert, including detonations, ambushes, attacks and kidnappings, while most of these operations were concentrated in Aleppo-Hama-Al-Raqqha triangle. These intensive operations were met by “timid” security campaigns by regime forces and loyal militias, despite the considerable support by Russia through daily airstrikes on ISIS positions. However, regime forces and allies’ efforts did not hinder ISIS growing activities.
According to SOHR statistics, ISIS managed to kill 780 regime soldiers and loyal militiamen in 2020, including 108 Iranian-backed non-Syrian militiamen, in ambushes, attacks, shelling and clashes in the Syrian desert. Also, ISIS lost 507 fighters in clashes and airstrikes by Russian and regime fighter jets in the same period.
SDF-held areas: 86 civilians among nearly 210 people killed in 480 operations
In 2020, the situation in areas under the control of Syria Democratic Forces was not much better than that of the regime-controlled areas, as ISIS cells were numerous and widely active, moving in the region “comfortably” in the wake of the “timid” security campaigns by SDF and the International Coalition which were met with people’s dissatisfaction.
ISIS cells in eastern Euphrates region noticeably stepped up their activities in 2020, whether through military operations, including detonations and attacks, or through implicit messages as in roaming the streets, and arguing people to dress according to sharia and pay “zakat”.
In early 2020, ISIS cells threw a grenade at a civilian’s home in al-Busayr town in rural Deir Ezzor, after being previously threatened of killing if he did not pay $10,000. While on January 10, SOHR activists monitored four ISIS members on motorcycles roaming Al-Busayrah city, chanting “the Islamic State will remain”. These incidents were followed by scores of similar ones during 2020.
SOHR activists documented more than 480 operations by ISIS cells in SDF-controlled areas in Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah, Al-Raqqah and Manbij in 2020. These operations, including detonations, ambushes and attacks, claimed the lives of 208 persons: 86 civilians, including 10 children and six women, and 122 SDF fighters.
Moreover, SOHR sources monitored popular discontent in areas under the control of the “Autonomous Administration” in the wake of the release of several ISIS members, as reliable sources informed SOHR, on January 8, that the “Autonomous Administration in northern and north-eastern Syria” and SDF released ten people in al-Hasakah city after mediations by tribal elders and dignitaries; the ten persons were arrested earlier for dealing with ISIS.
This action came a few days after SDF had released at least 39 persons, from Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah and Al-Raqqah, on January 4, after mediations by tribal elders and dignitaries. At that time, SOHR monitored widespread public discontent over the release of people accused of dealing with ISIS without being tried.
Areas under control of Turkish-backed factions: ISIS attempts to establish itself
As SOHR monitored and tracked ISIS resurgence across Syria, Observatory sources confirmed that ISIS cells continued their activities in areas under the control of Turkish forces and the factions of “Euphrates Shield” operations room. On June 26, ISIS announced, via affiliated accounts on social media, its responsibility for the assassination of an official in the real estate offices who was shot dead a day earlier in Al-Bab city in north-eastern Aleppo. That was not the first time for ISIS to claim responsibility for assassinations in Al-Bab city which is under the control of Turkish forces and “Euphrates Shield” factions. ISIS had acknowledged the assassination of a regime dissident colonel who became a commander in the Turkish-backed “National Army”.
ISIS has been stepping up its activities in the areas of “Euphrates Shield” at a time when the “Iraqi battalion” intensified its search and attempts to hunt them down, as very reliable sources provided the Syrian Observatory with detailed information, on June 7, about a battalion which comprised tens of ISIS members. The battalion, which operates under the banner of “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyyah” and works for the Turkish intelligence, consists of nearly 40 Iraqi fighters.
According to SOHR sources, the battalion works in northern Syria with a task of carrying out executions and detonations. In addition, they are tasked with spying on ISIS foreign members who try to flee to the Turkish territory and the undercover members in Aleppo countryside, so that the battalion can arrest them. Some of those arrested ISIS members were imprisoned or executed, while others were taken to Turkey in return for large sums of money. Reliable SOHR sources confirmed that those members in prisons have been compromised in order to be sent to fight in Libya.
While on June 20, reliable SOHR sources confirmed that the person who was killed in drone attack near Al-Bab city, was a prominent ISIS commander in Al-Raqqah.
Islamic State’s abductees: ignored and unaccounted for
Although nearly 21 months have passed since the International Coalition’s announcement of the defeat of ISIS which was a dominant force east of the Euphrates River, and with the recent developments over the past period, however, silence still surrounds the issue of ISIS’s abductees. All sides remain quiet and provide no clarification on the fate of thousands of abductees, where fear continues to grow for the lives and fate of the abductees, including Father Paolo Daololio, Bishops John Ibrahim and Paul Yazji, Abdullah Al Khalil, a British journalist, sky news journalist and other journalists, in addition to hundreds of abductees from Ain Al Arab (Kobane) area and Afrin, as well as the people of Deir ez-Zor.
With the continuing crimes and violations against Syrian civilians, including death threats against SOHR workers by the Islamic State and other killers and criminals in Syria, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights renews its vows to continue its work by monitoring, documenting and publishing all violations and crimes that committed against the Syrian people.
We, at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, renew our call to the UN Security Council to refer those ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ committed in Syria to the International Criminal Court so that all the criminals and killers of the Syrian people are brought to justice.
The Syrian Observatory also points out that it had already warned, well before “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” declared itself as “Caliphate State” in Syria and Iraq, that this organization did intend to work for the Syrian people and serve their interest, but rather ISIS continued to kill innocent Syrians, who had been suffering the brutality of war and violence and became displaced.
Furthermore, the “Islamic State” recruited children in the so-called “cubs of the caliphate”, and controlled the wealth and resources of Syrian people and harnessed them to build a “caliphate”, and traded openly back and forth with one of Syria’s neighbouring country.