What’s next for post-Islamic State Syria? A month-long reporting series from Syria Direct

Raqqa residents line up for bread in January. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.

The Islamic State once occupied a vast swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria that was—at its peak in 2014—larger than Great Britain. Taking the world by surprise in a brutal, blitzkrieg military campaign, radical fighters clad in black etched out a self-proclaimed caliphate that included parts of Aleppo city, Raqqa, and Deir e-Zor, eventually sweeping across western Iraq to Mosul and the outskirts of Baghdad.

Four years later, IS is a ghost of its former self. The organization lives on in Syria, but its fighters cling mostly to small, sparsely populated pockets of the country’s far eastern and southeastern desert. The group has largely come full circle, transitioning  from an aggressively expansionist quasi-state organization to a localized insurgent group operating in the shadows.

Even so, last week’s devastating and meticulously planned attack on mostly government-held, Druze-majority Suwayda province—in which at least 250 people died—shows that IS still poses a potent threat to communities across Syria.

While immense challenges remain on the road to reconstruction and full return to normal civilian life in territories previously controlled by the group, the fall of IS has cleared an initial, tentative pathway for residents in these areas to begin redefining their futures. Sweeping territorial changes since the fall of IS have transformed social norms and ushered in new political orders.

Over the course of the next month, Syria Direct, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, will be working with a team of six Syrian journalists on the ground in areas of the country formerly held by IS: two in Raqqa, two in Deir e-Zor and two in rural Aleppo. The goal of this project will be to both inform readers and at the same time train aspiring young journalists to produce objective, well-rounded coverage of the war’s impact on their own communities.

Here we bring you a primer on the considerable challenges and possible future trajectories of formerly IS-controlled territories across Syria.

Q: Whatever happened to IS? How much territory does the group hold today?

After capturing Raqqa in January 2014, IS launched a lightning campaign across Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, capturing several cities in Anbar province including Fallujah before taking the country’s second city, Mosul, before the end of June. On June 29, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a global caliphate from the minbar (pulpit) of Mosul’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque. But an international response was soon on its way.

In mid-2014, a US-led coalition encompassing 14 nations launched the first airstrikes against IS positions in Iraq, kicking off a major campaign to roll back the organization’s territorial gains and eliminate its leadership.

Working primarily with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops on the ground, the coalition informally cooperated with—and enjoyed tacit support from—the Syrian government, Russia and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Facing a withering barrage of bombardments, ground offensives and rising hostility from local populations under their control, the jihadists fell into a gradual retreat. Major centres of IS control began to fall—Mosul in July 2017 followed by the group’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa in October that same year.

In the aftermath of this campaign, IS has been fractured into a small and disjointed insurgency. The organization has relinquished control of over 98 percent of its former territory, maintaining only patchy footholds across sparsely populated desert regions of Deir e-Zor and the far eastern reaches of Homs province.

In the isolated Yarmouk Basin that borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, IS affiliate Jaish Khalid bin al-Waleed (JKW) also clings to life. After years of largely unchallenged rule since its founding in 2016, JKW is now the target of an intense pro-government bombardment campaign that began earlier this month.

Q: What has been the impact on former IS-held territories? And what are some of these areas’ most pressing challenges?

The campaign against IS has impacted around 7.7 million people who were formerly living under the group’s control in Syria and Iraq.

Despite the coalition’s military successes, territory clawed back from IS has come at an unimaginable price. Estimates of civilian casualty numbers from the campaign are murky, with the coalition officially claiming responsibility for "at least 1,059 deaths" since 2014 whereas other third party observers, including monitoring group Airwars, puts the civilian death toll between 6,375 and 9,790. Coalition leaders have vigorously denied higher casualty figures, with outgoing commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend writing in September 2017, “There has never been a more precise air campaign in the history of armed conflict.”

A Raqqa street in July. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Civil Council.

Military gains against IS were achieved only on the back of immense levels of destruction to housing, infrastructure and urban fabric. The final assault on IS-controlled Raqqa saw the heaviest aerial bombardment of any urban area since the Vietnam War, according to Amnesty International. By August 2017, the coalition had confirmed carrying out out over 24,566 airstrikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq, leaving formerly jihadist-held cities like Kobani, Mosul, and Raqqa in states of ruin that—even according to the most optimistic estimates—will take decades to rebuild.

In turn, IS has sought to sabotage their territories in retreat—booby-trapping houses, digging tunnels to destroy civilian infrastructure and planting thousands of mines within bombed-out, abandoned cityscapes. As displaced civilians gradually return to homes abandoned before the beginning of the anti-IS campaign, hundreds have been maimed or killed by hidden explosives. Efforts to clear them are still ongoing.

Thousands of residents living in formerly IS-held towns and cities meanwhile wait for the return of even the most basic municipal services. Entire neighborhoods in Mosul lack running water and electricity—months after the last IS fighters were defeated and the city retaken.

Q: What is the situation now in areas that were captured by the Turkish-backed Operation Euphrates Shield?

In rebel-held areas of northern Aleppo province, a seven-month Turkish-backed campaign to expel the Islamic State—dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield—came to a successful close in early 2017 and gave way to efforts to restore services and establish security across a region of control spanning some 1,500 square miles. Although the operation’s primary aim was the expulsion of jihadists, Euphrates Shield has also been criticized for pushing back majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stationed along the border.

Efforts at stabilization have been complicated by public health crises, rebel infighting and intermittent bombings in recaptured towns and cities. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced north by fighting and reconciliation deals elsewhere in Syria, while Turkey is playing an increasingly prominent—and contentious—role in the region’s local economy, system of governance and factional politics. The fact Turkey has constructed at least six military bases in the area is also raising concerns that occupying forces may be settling in for a long-term presence in northern Syria.

Q: Are IS fighters still a threat?

Despite the geographical collapse of their so-called “caliphate,” IS has continued sporadic attacks against various military and civilian targets throughout Syria and the wider region.

In late May, IS militants in Deir e-Zor killed 35 pro-government fighters during a firefight there, demonstrating the group’s lethal staying power even as military defeats mount against it. IS claimed responsibility for a car bomb in Daraa earlier this month that reportedly killed dozens of Russian and Syrian army soldiers. In Idlib, the group has also claimed a series of attacks and assassinations in recent weeks, taking advantage of a state of insecurity in the northwest.

Last week, IS fighters in the southeastern Badia desert—many of whom were evacuated by bus from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus in May—launched a brutal, 12-hour ground offensive on towns and villages in the mostly government-held Druze-majority Suwayda province while simultaneously sending at least four suicide bombers into Suwayda city itself. At least 250 people died. The attack was a potent reminder of the very real threat that IS poses to communities across Syria, whether as a caliphate or insurgent group.

The group also managed to stage a guerilla attack deep in government-held Homs province the previous month. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s own son reportedly died in the attack.  

The Jarablus crossing with Turkey on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Jarablus Border Crossing

For those living in areas still under the group’s control, serious human rights abuses continue unchecked. Residents tell Syria Direct that IS-affiliated groups have forced women into niqabs, burned musical instruments and conducted public beheadings for supposed crimes including “sorcery.”

Identifying and arresting former IS members suspected of atrocities has proven a formidable task, one lent urgency by the threat of sleeper cells both in Syria and beyond. Officials fear that fighters can easily blend in with larger communities of displaced civilians. Part of this effort is being undertaken by Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, who regularly photograph faces of men of military age passing through northern checkpoints from former IS territory. Through established virtual WhatsApp networks, fighters and activists who lived under IS have taken on the task of identifying faces of known criminals, leading to 300 arrests at one checkpoint alone during October 2017, according to pro-opposition outlet Smart News.  

Even as IS declines militarily, the group’s call for ethnic and religious violence remains a potent message for many sympathizers today, both inside and outside Syria. An uptick in attacks during Ramadan the past several years has coincided with incitement by IS publications and propaganda videos targeting lone-wolf attackers.

Q: What happened to the families of IS and foreign fighters when the international coalition took control?

Although tens of thousands of people from countries around the world travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State as it spread, the number of those returning in the opposite direction has reportedly been much smaller. According to one counterterrorism expert, out of approximately 5,000 Europeans known to have joined the Islamic State, only an estimated 1,500 have returned.

The fate of those who participated in the construction of the so-called caliphate—as fighters, civil servants or otherwise—remains in doubt. While thousands of fighters are known to have died in battles to defend the caliphate and hundreds are being held in Kurdish-run prisons, analysts expect others have fled for conflict zones such as Libya and the Philippines, or gone into hiding in places like Turkey and the Balkans.

At the same time, more than 2,000 foreign women and children who survived the downfall of the so-called caliphate are reportedly being held indefinitely at three camps in northeastern Syria. Those with foreign citizenship face a “legal void,” with origin countries unwilling to take back citizens who participated in violence under the so-called caliphate.

Then there are the children born under IS rule—originally registered with IS civil status documents and without verifiable citizenship—who are now at risk of statelessness. Some estimate as many as 5,000 children may have been born to widows of deceased foreign jihadists. Policymakers in Australia, Britain, France and much of Europe—and other Western countries where IS foreign fighters originated—have admitted that they haven’t yet determined the fate of stateless children born under IS.

Q: Which political factions have most benefited from the decline of IS?

The decline of IS in Syria has led to an inverse strengthening of the relative military positions of both the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian government.

For now, most territory gained in northern and eastern Syria at the expense of IS has passed into the hands of local Kurdish authorities. The Self-Administration, a democratic local governing body composed of Kurdish, Arab and Christian minority representatives, has taken up the task of governance and reconstruction in these former battle areas. However the fate of those territories remains in doubt after the SDF acknowledged on Saturday it had entered into talks with the Syrian government for a “roadmap leading to a democratic and decentralized Syria.”

The Syrian government meanwhile has also swallowed up significant portions of the so-called caliphate. Assad’s forces have seized wide swathes of territory across the Badia desert in Homs province—including Palmyra, where IS infamously destroyed several historic sites within the ancient Roman city.

During recent weeks, Syrian government troops and Iran-backed militias have moved into positions around the southwestern Yarmouk Basin for an ongoing assault against the group’s stronghold in the southwest. As of Sunday, the pocket of territory in southwestern Daraa province held by IS affiliate Jaish Khalid bin al-Waleed has already been reduced by some 50 percent.

Q: Who is funding reconstruction efforts in post-IS territories?

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), at least $847 million will be required to rebuild basic municipal infrastructure in Mosul alone–a staggering sum for a region that has experienced the virtual obliteration of its local economy over the past four years of fighting.

Raqqa has been the recipient of around $60 million in stabilization and recovery support from the US government. The US has largely led efforts in Raqqa as other donors and aid organizations maintain a distance, hesitant to operate without permission from the Syrian government in the Kurdish-held region. At the same time, United Nations agencies in Syria—based in government-controlled Damascus—have no presence in formerly IS-held territories in Raqqa and Deir e-Zor. In one prominent exception, the UAE pledged $50 million to stabilization efforts in Raqqa in late July. But otherwise, analysts say international support falls far short of what is needed in a city where some 11,000 buildings were destroyed and bodies remain buried beneath the rubble.

An exclusive US focus on “critical infrastructure” including roads, sanitation facilities and schools also means minimally equipped local bodies are left to tackle “herculean” tasks like clearing explosive ordinances from private homes before the displaced can return. And a funding freeze on $200 million in US stabilization assistance announced by President Donald Trump in March has further complicated matters. Some programs have been disrupted by the sudden freeze, while European governments are reportedly reluctant to fill in the gaps.

Despite the ample challenges ahead, at least 100,000 residents have returned to Raqqa, and basic services have shown some signs of improvement. Most residents have electricity for at least eight hours each day, markets are open and a number of hospitals are now functioning.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of former IS-held territories across Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria.

Correction: This report has been updated to reflect more recent figures for reported civilian deaths supplied by the international coalition and monitoring group Airwars. A previous version of this report stated that the coalition had officially claimed responsibility for "just 841 deaths since 2014," and that Airwars put the civilian death toll "closer to 6,200."

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.