Syrian-Iraqi borderlands key to ‘post-caliphate’ Islamic State, says analyst Hassan Hassan

An expanse of valleys and sparsely populated open desert lies between Syria and Iraq. There, small cities and towns hug the banks of the Euphrates River, which flows through Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province and into western Iraq.

These far-flung borderlands are the Islamic State’s focus as the group reverts to its insurgent roots, says Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

The Islamic State (IS) lost almost all of its territory in Syria over the past year to separate offensives by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). But recaptured territories, especially those under Syrian government control, are “fragile,” says Hassan, in this second installment of a two-part interview.

[Read part one of Hassan’s interview on the Islamic State’s reversion to insurgency tactics here.]

“These areas had some of the most elite, fierce IS fighters from previous battles,” Hassan tells Syria Direct’s Tariq Adely. “They are still there.”

“IS knows this area will be important for the next phase: the non-caliphate phase.”

Syrian Arab Army soldiers in the Homs town of Sukhna in early August 2017. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Q: In our previous conversation, you characterized Islamic State (IS) losses in eastern Syria and western Iraq as “temporary defeats,” suggesting that these areas are vulnerable to IS counter-attacks. In the past year, we have already seen IS suicide bombings in regime- and Kurdish-held territories as well as the capture of the Homs town of Qaryatayn, well behind Syrian Arab Army frontlines. How concerning are these events with regard to post-IS security and stabilization?

I believe that Iraq and Syria—especially the areas from Fallujah and Diyala [in Iraq] all the way to Qamishli, Aleppo and Palmyra [in Syria]—will continue to be a theater for Islamic State operations for a while because they are linked by valleys, deserts and borderlands. The areas stretching from Raqqa all the way down to the edges of Damascus are fragile.

I would say that IS could reclaim areas such as al-Bukamal and Deir e-Zor from the regime—although not from the Syrian Democratic Forces yet—in a relatively short time. IS is still there and can attack. The regime’s presence in Deir e-Zor is still fragile.  

Remember, the Russians and Iranians spent months [in 2017] trying to shore up the regime and make it possible for it to have a sprawling corridor from Damascus to Homs, Palmyra and Deir e-Zor. The regime managed to do it because of Russia, as well as Iranian forces and militias. Then, in one day, IS went back and captured some areas from Qaryatayn to Sukhna [in the desert regions of Syria’s central Homs province].

IS rolled back the regime’s gains relatively quickly, showing that these gains are not solid.

[Ed.: IS fighters briefly retook the town of Qaryatayn, nearly 200 km behind SAA frontlines, after a surprise attack in late September 2017. Three weeks later, Syrian state media announced that the SAA “restored security and stability...after elimination of ISIS terrorists.”

IS fighters in Deir e-Zor province in a 2018 video release. Image by Wilayat al-Kheir.

In September 2017, IS fighters captured a hilltop position on the western outskirts of Sukhna, a Homs town just northeast of Palmyra captured one month prior by SAA forces. IS was then able to launch a series of attacks from Sukhna’s western axis  before pro-government forces retook the area days later.]

The regime was able to gain ground [in eastern Syria], and IS lost the western side of the [Euphrates River] from Deir e-Zor city to al-Bukamal. The regime remains in control there, but I don’t think their presence is durable. It can be reversed, especially now that much of the force the regime used on the western parts of the Euphrates has gone to fight somewhere else.  

Q: Currently, the Syrian Arab Army and allied forces are carrying out offensives in Syria’s rebel-held northwest on the edges of Idlib province, as well as on the besieged East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

Exactly, making [government control in recently captured territories in eastern Syria] even more fragile.

IS withdrew [from much of its remaining territory in Deir e-Zor province] as part of a calculated strategy in October 2017. IS has not been pushing against the regime. They are attacking the regime through snipers and occasional shelling, but are following a different strategy these days.

The situation is worse for the regime because what made the difference [in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces’ battles against IS] was mainly American precision airstrikes. That is the one thing everyone has to bear in mind.

In October 2016, IS started to talk about shifting completely to a pre-Mosul [or pre-2014] mode. For example, in a series of articles, [IS leaders] talked about how they lost so much trying to defy the American airstrikes. They failed and lost some of their best cadres trying to operate under the airstrikes.

IS compared the situation to March 2008, when their previous incarnation decided to dismantle all its fighting units in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq, and shift toward IEDs and other terrorist, insurgency tactics. That’s what they did from the spring of 2008 all the way to 2013, when they moved to Syria, established the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and announced the unification with Jabhat a-Nusra.

[Ed.: Originally, Jabhat a-Nusra and the Islamic State were two branches of the same entity: Al-Qaeda. In spring 2013, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that he was merging his organization with Jabhat a-Nusra and forming a single group under his command. 

A fighter transports explosives through a tunnel in Iraq’s Anbar province in “A Proxy War,” a video published by IS media in 2018. Image by Wilayat Anbar.

Both Nusra and Al-Qaeda leadership denounced al-Baghdadi’s decision, and a period of violent clashes between the two groups ensued as fighters from both sides defected. In a November 2013 statement, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman a-Zawahiri denounced al-Baghdadi’s IS and declared that Nusra was the sole organization representing Al-Qaeda in Syria.]

[IS leaders] are suggesting that they have to do the same today: to dismantle their fighting units, to operate less as an army and more like an insurgent group.

Q: You briefly mentioned the effect of western Iraq and eastern Syria’s geographic terrain—deserts and valleys—on the Islamic State’s ability to wage an insurgency. Do you think there is something unique about these borderlands between Syria and Iraq, whether the terrain itself or the societal landscape, that could play a role in the Islamic State’s future in the region?

IS has focused on the borderlands. This is an area I call ‘Syraq,’ after the Afpak between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is kind of a contiguous area where jihadis can operate.

[Ed.: Afpak refers to the territory that stretches across much of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Due to the lack of central authority and local policing in the border region, armed groups can move with impunity and use the region as a staging ground for operations.]

We call these the jihadi heartlandsthe focus of IS and other similar groupsnot because there is anything special about the people or society. These areas are not doomed to be jihadi bases and sanctuaries.

Rather, the common denominator [in the territories] stretching from Fallujah to the edges of Diyala and all the way to Raqqa, Deir e-Zor and Palmyra is that they are neglected. They are not the focus of central government; they are marginalized.

If you look at these areas, what local militias can protect them and make it difficult for jihadis to infiltrate? Or work with residents to provide the necessary intelligence to local governments? That kind of cooperationthat desire to work with the governmentis not there.

[The borderlands] will continue to be vulnerable to the next phase of IS. When IS announced its shift from fighting as a conventional army into insurgency, it happened in this area. The die-hard IS fighters who [survived] previous battles in Raqqa and Mosul went to this area: Mayadeen, Deir e-Zor, Anbar and al-Bukamal.

[Ed.: High-ranking Islamic State (IS) leaders and much of its operational command relocated to Mayadeen after US-backed forces moved into the militant group’s de facto capital of Raqqa city in June, Syria Direct reported. The SAA and allied forces captured Mayadeen on October 14. US Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said in a December 2017 statement that IS fighters who left Raqqa city for the Euphrates River Valley still “have to be hunted down.”]

These areas had some of the most elite, fierce IS fighters from previous battles. Where did these guys go? They are still there, moving to insurgency tactics. IS knows this area will be important for the next phase: the non-caliphate phase.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.