ISIS resurgence in Syria | Clear messages, “Islamic State” is still alive and kicking, despite its considerable losses • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

ISIS resurgence in Syria | Clear messages, “Islamic State” is still alive and kicking, despite its considerable losses

ISIS continues its violent attacks in the Syrian desert, while its sleeper cells pose a threat to the safety and lives of civilians in other areas throughout Syria, attempting to prove that the “Islamic State” is still alive, even with all grave losses in its ranks in the latest years due military operations which targeted its major strongholds and led to ending its presence as a holder of power.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has been all along warning against a retaliatory resurgence by this terrorist organisation which aims to regroup and reposition again, despite the considerable number of members and commander it lost and the serious material and financial, losses estimated to be in millions of euros.


As a human rights organisation, SOHR also warns against the ramifications of ISIS attacks on civilians, especially children, and kidnapping of women for collecting ransoms and stresses it support to the residents in these “unsafe” areas. SOHR warns against the temptation to succumb to financial incentives offered by ISIS which attempts to exploit the dire living conditions to lure weak-willed individuals and convince them to join the ranks of the terrorist organisation.


On many occasions, SOHR shed light on attempts by ISIS to prove its presence in Syria, although the Counter-ISIS International Coalition command announced the elimination of the so-called Caliphate of the “Islamic State” in March 2019. While the recent developments on the ground indicate that ISIS has not been fully eliminated, as it continues launching military operations and counter attacks in areas controlled by regime forces and Syria Democratic Forces, exploiting opportunities to create security vacuum and carry out assassinations, which clearly indicate that the “Islamic State” is still alive and kicking.


ISIS is deployed in an area of some 4,000 square kilometres scattered in the Syrian desert, precisely 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 2021, the Syrian Observatory documented the death of 880 people in security operations in the Syrian desert. The fatalities include:


  • 484 ISIS members, including 83 killed in clashes with regime forces, while the others, 401, were killed by Russian airstrikes.


  • 396 of regime soldiers and loyal militiamen were killed in attacks, explosions and ambushes by ISIS.


Also, in 2021, SOHR activists documented over 344 attacks by ISIS cells in SDF-held areas in Deir Ezzor, Al-Hasakah, Aleppo and Al-Raqqah, including armed attacks and explosions. According to SOHR statistics, the number of people killed in these attacks reached 229: 93 civilians, including nine women and five children, and 136 members of SDF, Asayish Forces, Self-Defence Forces and other SDF-backed military formations.


In an exclusive SOHR interview with the strategic expert, Majid Al-Qaisi says “a plenty of developments has occurred since ISIS lost its last stronghold in Syria, Al-Baghouz town. Despite the death of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in US airstrikes in north Syria and appointment of Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurashi as the leader of the organisation, ISIS has been still posing a great threat to Syria, after it has turned from the stage of controlling major cities, such as Deir Ezzor and Al-Raqqah, to the stage of ‘fight for survival.’ Through later stages, ISIS seeks to intensify its activities, taking advantage of the current political and sectarian factors. Although ISIS has lost many of its capabilities, including funds, field commanders and first-rank leaders, it is still able to launch attacks inside Syria, exactly in the area between eastern Homs to areas in Al-Hasakah running through Palmyra, Al-Sukhnah, western Syrian desert in east Euphrates region and Al-Safa. From 2020 to late 2021, ISIS carried out 950 to 975 attacks, which ISIS claimed responsibility, and they can be distributed as follows:


  • Deir Ezzor: Nearly 550 attacks.


  • Al-Raqqah: 150 attacks.


  • Al-Hasakah: 135 attacks.


  • The rest of these attacks took place in Homs, Daraa and Aleppo, as well as the capital Damascus, which experienced four attacks.


These statistics indicate that ISIS is more active and numerous in Deir Ezzor, Al-Raqqah and Al-Hasakah, in addition to the presence of sleeper cells in Homs, Daraa and Damascus. Intelligence and foreign reports have stated that the organisation comprises 13,000 to 15,000 fighters in Syria, among them 2,500 to 3,000 fighters are active members, while the rest are sleeper cells.”


Al-Qaisi adds, “ISIS depends on a decentralised leadership and executing its attacks in small groups, which is more akin to guerrilla tactics, targeting Syrian soldiers and loyal militiamen in Deir Ezzor areas and west Syria desert, exploiting these regions’ geography. In Al-Hasakah, however, where Syria Democratic Forces and the International Coalitions are present, ISIS has taken advantage of several factors, including the subsiding role of the International Coalitions and the expansion of SDF, which negatively affected SDF combat ability to cover the area from Al-Qamishli to eastern Deir Ezzor and Al-Baghouz. ISIS also exploited the conflict between Iran, Russia and Al-Assad’s regime on one hand, and the International Coalition and SDF on the other with each party attempting to dominate oil and gas fields in Al-Shaddadi and the strategic fields of Koniko, Al-Omar, Al-Ward and Al-Tanak.”


Speaking to SOHR, the expert on extremist groups, Hatem Bo Alik, has clarified that the escalation of ISIS attacks in the recent time, especially in the Syrian desert and east Syria region, indicate that it is seeking to regroup. The Syrian expert says, “the recent attacks by ISIS are signs of understanding the nature of its activities in the coming period, especially with the instable situation in Syria and lack of consensus on reaching a political settlement which may be the only way to weaken ISIS at a time when ISIS exploits every gap caused by the security disorder and vacuum. The situation in Syria, unchanged despite all negotiations and consultations for years, has helped the organisation to regroup again, but this time, its structure seems to be more poised and balanced, benefiting from the years of war.”


The International Coalition’s spokesperson recently warned against escalating ISIS attacks on civilians, using IEDs and light weapons with the aim to undermine efforts exerted to reach stability in areas free of terrorism.


The political analyst, Alan Baku Kiki, told SOHR “the terrorist organisation revived in several areas in Syria, especially after the Turkish invasion in north-east Syria in 2019 when the Turks captured the cities of Ras Al-Ain (Sere Kaniye) and Tel Abyad (Keri Sebi), along with the withdrawal of the International Coalition from east Euphrates region. Turkey exploited the security vacuum and gave ISIS cells instructions to intensify their attacks, so that Turkey could advance into Syrian territory and capture the largest possible area. However, Turkey’s plan did not fully succeed, as SDF were aware of that reprehensible plan and could confront intensive ISIS attacks. In addition, SDF and raised their combat abilities to prevent ISIS resurgence. Erdogan is the most player to gain benefits from ISIS resurgence. There are several armed groups subordinating to Turkey with most of their members being ISIS members, who joined these groups after the liberation of Al-Raqqah and Deir Ezzor. Moreover, most of ISIS commanders are located in areas under the control of Turkey in Syria, such as Idlib, Al-Bab, Jarabulus, Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad. While International Coalition Forces have stated, in official reports, that they targeted several ISIS commanders in areas under the control of Turkey in Syria. Not only does ISIS resurgence pose a threat to north Syria region and the Syrian desert, but it also threatens broad areas across Syria, especially since Turkey continues providing material and logistical support to ISIS.”


Meanwhile, the prominent political opponent, Dr. Ibrahim Al-Jebbawi, sees that ISIS remains a source of danger in many areas, not in the desert only, as ISIS is just a puppet serving specific agendas across Syria. In the Syrian desert, ISIS is used by the Russians against the Syrian regime to keep it in need of their assistance and accept Russia’s domination over Syria. Russia also uses ISIS against Iranian-backed militias to win ultimate influence in Syria. It is common knowledge that ISIS have been created by joint global intelligence with the Iranian regime being a major partner. ISIS is just a “scarecrow” which can be disbanded and vanish by just an oral decision by its “creators” and players controlling it.


On the other hand, the opponent, Ahmed Mazhar Sa’du, has confirmed that the elimination of ISIS in Syria has not been decisive, and this was on purpose, as ISIS presence in Syria has been used as an “excuse” for ongoing presence of the International Coalition and so that SDF remain the only beneficiary of the supposed long-term US support and so that the process of demonising the ‘Syrian Revolution’s” military factions by Bashar Al-Assad and its supporters continues.


The factors which have helped to maintain ISIS in Syria until now are still exist with ISIS continuing to serve the agendas of several powers, particularly Israel, the USA and Turkey. “It seems that there are foreign and local players who are looking forward to an ISIS resurgence which will serve their interests, and I think that the Russians are still talking about their desired role, and it is safe to say the Iran’s presence in Syria would necessarily require ISIS’s existence” added Sa’du.

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