Is ISIS revival in Syria possible?

Since the beginning of this month, the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” has executed more than four major assaults against Syrian regime forces, local Sunni and Shiite militias loyal to it. Also, at the beginning of this year, the organization’s military activities have escalated, its methods have diversified, and its geographical targets in Syria have expanded, despite the loss of a number of its senior leaders. In light of the decline in international interest in the “counter-terrorism” policies in favor of geopolitical competition between countries and the emergence of other local, regional, and international challenges, the absence of any political solutions amid economic crises, living difficulties and signs of ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Thus, the “Islamic State” has become more daring in carrying out its operations within the framework of a patient strategy based on guerrilla warfare and attrition tactics, by shifting to a flexible and decentralized bureaucratic organization and small cells spread over large areas in areas of the security vacuum, which made talk about the return of the organization to impose its control over areas in Syria a possible and a noteworthy opinion.

On August 10, the most violent attack by the fighters of the “Islamic State” came when at least 33 soldiers were killed after targeting a military bus of the Syrian regime forces in Badiat al-Mayadeen in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, and the organization claimed the attack the next day, and said in a statement,  published by the organization’s “Amaq” agency, that its fighters were able to kill and wound 40 soldiers. The attack came about a week after the Islamic State announced the installation of its new leader, Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurashi and confirmed the death of its fourth caliph, Abu Hussein al-Qurashi, in Idlib, and accused the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani of handing over his body to the Turkish authorities.

ISIS attacks in Syria have grown since the beginning of 2023 compared to last year by more than 50%, and the attacks have varied and covered large geographical areas. The fighters of the organization attacked a military bus of the Syrian army on the Deir Ezzor-Homs Road on August 13, killing five soldiers. On August 7, ISIS fighters launched a surprise attack against the points of the regime forces and the Iranian militia in the eastern countryside of Raqqa, killing dozens of regime forces and destroying several vehicles.  

 On July 31, ISIS cells carried out an attack targeting a tanker convoy transporting oil on the Raqqa-Salamiya road, east of Hama province. The organization announced through its official newspaper “Al-Naba”, that the attack left 12 dead and wounded, and led to the damage of 15 vehicles in the Hama desert, most of them during the attack that targeted the oil convoy, and in a remarkable attack targeted the Shiite civilians in the suburb of Sayyida Zainab, south of Damascus city, in two separate motorcycle-borne IED attacks on July 23 and 25, which may be the first in the group’s irregular and ongoing attacks against urban centers in Syria.

The Islamic State’s attacks have proven that the Syrian regime lacks the ability to defeat ISIS in the middle of the Syrian desert, as the regime is able to temporarily remove ISIS secret cells in Damascus and elsewhere, but its operations lack strategic and operational coordination and foresight. The regime does not have a coherent campaign plan that would allow it to systematically and permanently defeat ISIS.   The regime’s efforts are often reactive in the form of short-term clearances that do not hold up the Islamic State which carried out the highest number of attacks in early 2023 since the end of the regional “caliphate” in 2018 and will continue to infiltrate offensive cells into urban areas with the aim of intimidating urban and semi-urban residents.

ISIS’s attacks on the areas and forces of the Syrian regime and the militias loyal to it are not limited, as its attacks on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the United States of America and the international coalition forces, do not stop, as the attack of the “Islamic State” organization on the Al-Sinaa prison in the Ghwairan neighborhood in the Syrian province of Hasaka, which houses prisoners of its fighters, on January 20, 2022, demonstrated the organization’s danger, capabilities and strategic patience, and that the organization still has significant combat, funding and media capabilities.

The attack came after a  long series of multiform attacks in Syria and Iraq, and the attack is accompanied by the strategy of “demolishing the walls” that the organization relied on before its control of Mosul when it attacked Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons and freed its detained fighters, and the organization said in a statement about the outcome of the attack that it was able to “free a number of prisoners”, but the Syrian Democratic Forces “SDF” supported by the international coalition denied this, and said that they killed about 370 prisoners they tried to escape during the clashes, which lasted for more than a week, until the SDF was able to fully regain control of the prison on January 31, 2022. The attack demonstrated IS’s survival, adaptability and experience to sustain the organization despite losing control of territory, losing the last spot of spatial control under the influence of the “caliphate” in the Baghouz area in March 2019.

After the rise of attacks by the “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” on the Syrian regime forces and Iran-backed militias loyal to it and the daring Deir Ezzor attack, the “conspiracy” theories that accompanied the era of the group’s rise flourished again, as the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates accused the “US occupation forces” of “targeting the bus with its terrorist organizations,” according to a statement carried by the official SANA news agency. The statement stated that “this criminal and terrorist aggression” comes “in the context of the support and sponsorship of the United States of America for terrorist organizations, foremost of which is the organization. The conspiracy narrative of the supporters and followers of the “resistance and reluctance” insists that ISIS is an American product, and that the recent escalation came after the American anger at the Arab rapprochement with Syria and the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Although geopolitical competition is present and terrorism was used in the strategic game in Syria, the claim that ISIS is an intelligence product that amounts to superstition, as the “Islamic State” has its own global agenda, and is adept at investing in crises and positioning itself within the contradictions between the competing powers and the United States of America despite its differences with Iran and Syria, yet wants to calm the region to focus on the Chinese challenge and the Russian front, as reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Syrian Arab rapprochement fall in the context of creating a state of stability in the Middle East to avoid disturbing the arena of competition with China and conflict with Russia.

With the change of strategic priorities around the definition of vital interests, and the increase and diversity of risks that threaten the future position of the United States, “terrorism” has shifted to the ranks of secondary threats, although the so-called “terrorism” has become more widespread, diverse and complex, other challenges have emerged in the face of the United States besides terrorism, posing a threat to America’s global position, and these threats consist of a variety of internal and external, the most important of which is the growing power of rival countries such as China and Russia and rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea. The year 2021 marked a turning point for both domestic and international terrorism, as it saw the attack on the US Capitol by right-wing and fascist groups, and the chaotic end of America’s longest war in Afghanistan, as the US counterterrorism campaign suffered a devastating double blow in one year. Both events indicate that the United States is heading towards a darker and more uncertain counterterrorism future.

The death of IS leader Abu al-Husayn al-Qurashi does not change the picture of the global jihadist landscape and is nothing more than a tactical and symbolic success. The Islamic State, for its part, appeared to be one of the most developed jihadist organizations in terms of organizational cohesion and ideological solidity,  even after its expulsion from its urban areas of control in Iraq and Syria. With the end of the organization’s political project as a “caliphate” state, it returned to the state of the “organization”, and returned to relying on its traditional combat tactics based on the approach of attrition and guerrilla warfare.

A cursory glance at the trajectories of the formation of the Islamic State confirms the existence of a highly complex, cohesive, and flexible bureaucratic organization with a great capacity to evolve and adapt, and the recent transition to a new leadership points to one aspect of development: when Zarqawi (Ahmad Fadil al-Khalayleh) was killed on June 6, 2006, he left his successors a coherent, strong, and influential organization, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (Hamid Daoud al-Zawi), a former officer in the dissolved Iraqi army, took over the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq. In October 2006, during his reign, the organization turned into a more centralized bureaucratic organization, and when it was announced that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was killed on April 19, 2010, along with Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, on May 16, 2010, the Islamic State of Iraq pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri al-Samarrai).

After killing Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 26, 2019, the organization quickly appointed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashemi al-Qurashi (Amir Muhammad Saeed Abdul Rahman Mawla), and after his death In February 2022, the organization announced on March 10, 2022, the inauguration of Abu al-Hasan al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, and after the killing of al-Hashemi in mid-October 2022, Abu al-Husayn al-Husseini al-Qurashi assumed the leadership of the organization in November 2022, and on the third of last August, it was announced that Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi was killed, and the current caliph Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurashi was installed, and it is clear that the last two leaders are of the new generation, in reference to the cohesion and unity of leadership after the loss of each caliph. The Islamic State broadcasts propaganda images showing hundreds of ISIS fighters—from Syria to Afghanistan, from Egypt to Mozambique—pledging allegiance to the latter caliph and that ISIS did not personalize the caliphate by focusing on the leader. By the end of 2022, there were no significant signs of opposition or discontent within the ISIS global network. Since the group lost its territorial caliphate, it has operated as branches governed by a single central decision, which has adapted to developments. The organization’s cells that do not control the ground have shown flexibility in restructuring themselves organizationally at the military, security, administrative, and media levels.

Today, the “Islamic State” returns to Syria without imposing control over a specific place, striking in the Syrian desert and on the outskirts of cities; and even attacking inside cities with cells spread throughout most of the Syrian geography, and its goals themselves have not changed, as it does not spare from its attack the Syrian regime forces, militias loyal to them, Russian soldiers, coalition forces, Syrian Democratic Forces and Syrian opposition factions, sometimes. This analogy applies to every place where there are branches of the organization currently, such as Iraq, where the central leadership is stationed, without a doubt, by virtue of the deep-rooted history of the organization in this country, to Libya, Nigeria, West Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and others. A Pentagon report indicated that the Islamic State has rearranged its ranks to reappear in Syria, and the report stressed that the organization has strengthened its armed capabilities in Iraq. The Islamic State seems to be relying on objective and radical reasons that prepare it to rebuild itself and recruit more fighters.

In the context of the escalation of attacks by the “Islamic State”, the United Nations experts said in a report published on August 15, 2023: The Islamic State (IS) still commands between 5,000 and 7,000 members in its former stronghold in Syria and Iraq. Experts monitoring sanctions against the group noted that during the first half of 2023, the threat posed by the Islamic State remained “mostly high in conflict zones.” The Committee said in its report to the Security Council “The overall situation remains active,” and despite the group’s heavy losses and reduced activity in Syria and Iraq, the risk of its resurgence remains. “The group has adapted its strategy and integrated with the local population, being cautious in choosing battles that are expected to lead to casualties,” it said, and has “regrouped and recruited more militants from camps in northeast Syria and from vulnerable communities, including in neighboring countries.”

Although the group deliberately downgraded its operations to “facilitate recruitment and reorganization,” the committee noted that nearly 11,000 suspected ISIS militants in northeast Syria are being held at facilities belonging to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have played a prominent role in the fight against ISIS. Northeast Syria includes two closed camps al-Hol and Roj, which experts say house about 55,000 people with alleged links or Family ties to the Islamic State, living under “harsh” conditions and “great humanitarian hardship.” The panel of experts reported that ISIS is still continuing its “Cubs of the Caliphate” program to recruit children in the overcrowded al-Hol camp.

IS has proven difficult to contain in Syria and Afghanistan, and despite the overall decline in the frequency of attacks, the  group continues to launch multiple attacks a month in Iraq, Syria, and Sinai, and its affiliates in Africa and parts of Asia are increasingly active. Even with the loss of leaders, various provinces in ISIS’s global network remained active from Africa to Central Asia in 2022. The largest number of ISIS operations shifted south towards Africa. In recent years, the Islamic State has boasted the activity of several of its affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria in West Africa, Mali in the Sahel, the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, and Mozambique in Southern Africa. It also enjoys a particularly active concession in Afghanistan along the Pakistani border known as ISIS-Khorasan Province or ISIS-Khorasan.

In summary, the escalation of IS attacks in Syria suggests that a final defeat of the group remains elusive, as part of the shift from spatial caliphate to a decentralized bureaucratic organization and reliance on its previous traditional combat tactics through attrition attacks and guerrilla warfare.

Despite the decline of the organization in Iraq, Syria and Sinai; the organization  continues to launch deadly attacks and maintains a proven ability to carry out complex operations, and it is clearly growing in Africa and South Asia, and the United States’ disregard for the activities of the Islamic State, despite its insistence on maintaining the 86-nation international coalition against ISIS and admitting that the organization will not be defeated, indicates a shift in US strategic priorities towards other issues such as competition with China and Russia. Authoritarian regimes in the region still provide the reasons, conditions and roots for the return of the “Islamic State” again, with the continued state of failure of governance and rationality in the region politically, economically, socially and culturally, and if the start and rise of the first “ISIS” began in Iraq, the second return will be from Syria and the recent attacks are only an initial indication of a possible return.

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