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How does IS resurrect itself in southern Syria, defeat after defeat?

After each blow to the Islamic State in southern Syria inflicted by former opposition factions, the group simply reshuffles its ranks and reactivates its cells. How does IS regenerate itself, what is its future in the south and what is the regime’s relationship with it?


13 February 2024

PARIS — A house in Nawa, a city in the western countryside of Syria’s southern Daraa province, became a battlefield in late January. Local fighters from Nawa, alongside others from the military security-linked 8th Brigade that includes former opposition fighters, launched an attack on an Islamic State (IS) group barricaded inside. When the dust cleared, eight IS members had been killed, including a commander.

The operation was the latest in a series of security operations launched by local groups of former opposition fighters against IS cells in Daraa over the past four years. The operations often kill prominent IS leaders, as in Nawa, where Osama Shehadeh al-Azizi, known as the “wali of the Houran,” or the IS “governor” in southern Syria, died. 

All those killed in Nawa were Syrian. Al-Azizi and two others were from Daraa province, while four fighters were from Damascus and one from Quneitra. 

IS has suffered heavy blows in southern Syria—including the October 2022 killing of the group’s former leader, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi, by former opposition settlement factions in Daraa’s northern city of Jassim. But with each defeat, it manages to reshuffle its ranks and reactivate its cells. How are IS cells in the south able to renew themselves, defeat after defeat? What is the organization’s future in the south, an area nominally under the control of a regime that some on the ground accuse of having a relationship with it?

How does IS regenerate? 

The killing of al-Azizi, the IS leader in the southern Houran region, and before him al-Hashimi, its leader in all of Syria, were not isolated incidents. In the south, settlement forces, who themselves have been captured and assassinated by IS in recent years, have inflicted several blows to the extremist group’s individual fighters and cells.

Yet the particular nature of IS in southern Syria makes it difficult to uproot. After Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW), a faction that pledged allegiance to IS and included local fighters from Daraa, was defeated in the summer of 2018 in its enclave in the Yarmouk Basin region, its fleeing forces spread throughout southern Syria. Many of them were killed, or captured and turned over to the regime, but others survived. 

In March 2019, months after IS was defeated in southern Syria, the United States (US)-led international coalition announced the defeat of IS across Syria and Iraq in March 2019. However, IS’ remaining forces adapted to a new reality, and continued operating. “IS turned its military and spatial domains into security domains,” Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups, told Syria Direct. IS became “embedded in the local environment, closer to the concept of sleeper cells.”

In Daraa, former JKW members are the fundamental pillar of IS operations. They also “facilitate the movements of foreign fighters, and provide cover for them, as in the case of the former leader Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi, who lived in Jassim under the cover of fighters from the city for several months before he was killed,” Abu Shadi, a former opposition commander, told Syria Direct from his home in the Daraa countryside. 

IS operates in the south today “as small local groups, made up of JKW remnants, which directly carry out its goals, as well as recruiting new young men who have the same ideological inclinations,” Abu Shadi added. “It also works with armed groups whose only goal is to make money.” 

The “small cells” IS relies on in Daraa, made up of fighters coming from other parts of the country where the group collapsed, or remaining JKW fighters, “recruit or cooperate with others who are not IS fighters and do not agree with its ideology,” Ahmad Abazeid, a Syrian researcher who specializes in Islamist groups, told Syria Direct

The summer 2018 settlement agreement that saw Damascus regain control of the south split the local opposition into three groups, Abazeid said. The settlement factions and the central committees—local bodies formed to negotiate with the regime and oversee the settlement process—were convinced of a negotiated solution and appeasement with the regime. A second group joined regime security and military services, and began taking orders directly from them. Others, meanwhile, rejected the central committees, targeting their leaders and other former Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in the south, even those that remained opposed to the regime, he explained.

This third group “is the main ammunition for IS, which has benefited from it to recruit, hide and mobilize against the central committees, as in the case of Hafu and al-Harfoush in Daraa al-Balad,” Abazeid said. 

In November 2022, local settlement factions and the 8th Brigade launched a military campaign in the Tariq al-Sad district of Daraa city, targeting Muayad al-Harfoush and Muhammad al-Masalma—also known as Hafu. The two were accused of working for IS and assassinating opposition commanders and forces on its behalf. The campaign ended with the two men fleeing the city with a group of their forces, while others were killed.

In Nawa last month, the forces attacking IS were able to identify the house al-Azizi was using as a headquarters based on confessions made by an IS member captured earlier in January in Inkhil, a city north of Daraa, one member of a settlement faction in Nawa told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. 

“The IS affiliate confessed about several of their houses in Nawa. When local groups raided them, they were empty, but there were some traces,” he said. 

In 2022, the strength of IS in southern Syria reached its highest point since it collapsed in mid-2018. The organization set up field courts and assassinated dozens of its opponents, carrying out more than 90 assassinations in Jassim and the surrounding area. In response, settlement factions launched a large-scale campaign against it, which culminated in the killing of the IS leader in October of that year, Abu Ishaq, a military commander from Jassim, said. 

“IS is an idea. Even if the leader of IS or the others die, the idea remains, and it is difficult to fight it.”

But soon enough, “the IS cells regenerated,” Abu Ishaq added. “IS is an idea. Even if the leader of IS or the others die, the idea remains, and it is difficult to fight it,” he said. “IS is still recruiting,” funding its activities in Daraa through “killing, kidnapping, stealing, highway robbery and car theft.” 

As Abu Haniyeh sees it, because the deep-rooted causes of “the unstable security situation, poor economic situation and the absence of a political solution” persist, “IS will remain as a security presence, capable of recruiting new members and popping up from time to time.” 

IS and the regime

From the time the regime reentered southern Syria under the 2018 settlement agreement, it has been accused of collaborating with IS. Local sources accuse Damascus of releasing IS members, facilitating their passage and movement in Daraa and the Syrian Badia—Syria’s eastern desert—and recruiting IS members to further its interests.

In July 2018, “we handed over more than 60 emirs [commanders] from JKW to the regime in the center of Tafas city. Forty of them were released, and it is they who have reconstituted the IS force in the south,” Abu Ishaq said. “Every regime security branch is linked to IS members it managed to recruit.” 

“Months ago, one of the settlement commanders took a list of IS members and the houses they were holed up in Jassim, and handed it over to the state security detachment in the city, with the goal of pushing the regime to go after them,” Abu Ishaq said. “Minutes after handing over the list, he received death threats on Whatsapp. Weeks later, he was actually killed.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm Abu Ishaq’s account, as he refused to provide additional information about the event, including when it took place.

Ayman Abu Mahmoud, the spokesperson for the Horan Free League, a local opposition media organization, also accused the regime of colluding with IS. He cited a filmed confession by Rami al-Salkhadi, a reported IS member from Jassim captured in October 2022, in which he stated that he met with Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, the head of the military security branch in southern Syria. 

Al-Salkhadi’s statements cannot be confirmed as they were made in the context of a filmed confession after capture and interrogation. Still, Abu Mahmoud said the information provided is accurate. “Al-Salkhadi was the link between the former leader of IS in Jassim, before he was killed, and Louay al-Ali,” he said. 

“Military security and its head Louay al-Ali” have also been accused of facilitating the escape of al-Hafu and Harfoush, the two IS commanders in Daraa city, after they were besieged in 2022, Abu Mahmoud said. He also cited the “treatment of IS wounded at the regime’s al-Sanamayn [Military] Hospital,” which Abu Ishaq echoed.

Both sources also accused former opposition leader Muhsen al-Haymid, who today works for the military security branch in al-Sanamayn, of working for IS at the same time by facilitating the admission of the wounded into the hospital. 

“The regime benefits from IS being in southern Syria, because IS and groups associated with it have mainly targeted figures opposed to the regime—central committee leaders or FSA commanders—who maintained an anti-regime stance and worked to prevent its absolute control over the Syrian south,” Abazeid said. 

“IS and groups associated with it have mainly targeted figures opposed to the regime—central committee leaders or FSA commanders—who maintained an anti-regime stance”

“There is an overlap between politics, geopolitics, terrorism and revolutionary movements, not only in Syria, but across the world, in addition to the existence of common interests at some point, and this applies to the Syrian regime and IS,” Abu Haniyeh said. 

However, this “does not mean that it is a real alliance, because there is also a deep war, and IS launches attacks in the Badia [Syria’s eastern desert], other areas, and recently in Damascus, inflicting significant losses on the regime,” Abu Haniyeh added. “It is a situational alliance, in the sense that both of them are exploiting some circumstance, at a given moment, to benefit from something.” 

IS’ future in the south

The two former opposition commanders, Abu Shadi and Abu Ishaq, minimized the threat IS poses in Daraa, saying the blows it has suffered keep its activity limited. 

“IS knows today that we react strongly to any assassination or bombing it carries out, and we are carrying out campaigns against it,” Abu Ishaq said. “It has understood the lesson, and does not want escalation, in order to avoid campaigns being launched against it.” 

“There is no pressure on IS today from the coalition or the Syrian regime, because they have different priorities. This gives room for IS to restructure, in the south and elsewhere.”

In turn, Abu Haniyeh noted that the future of IS “always depends on the objective circumstances. IS, and all jihadist and revolutionary movements, does not create crises, but exploits them.” 

“Regional tensions, including the Gaza war, and international preoccupations with these tensions, keep IS comfortable, especially with the escalation between Iran, its networks and militias and the US in the wake of October 7,” Abu Haniyeh added. Therefore, “there is no pressure on IS today from the coalition or the Syrian regime, because they have different priorities. This gives room for IS to restructure, in the south and elsewhere,” he said.

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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