AMMAN — “Four of the brothers were killed on different fronts, while the fifth’s fate is unknown; he’s been in a regime prison for a year and a half,” Abu Muhammad told Syria Direct, describing the tragic story of family of his relative, Hassan.
Hassan (a pseudonym) was killed on April 30 in the Badiya (desert) of Homs province, Syria. Though he was the fourth son to be killed since the revolution began in 2011, his death still came as a shock to his family.
The first of Hassan’s brothers was killed in 2014 while fighting the government forces alongside an opposition faction, while the other two—who had joined the so-called Islamic State (ISIS)—were killed fighting opposition forces in 2016.
Hassan was killed alongside other government soldiers when a landmine detonated in their bus as they traveled through the desert of eastern Homs. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack over its media channel Amaq.
Just a few hours before his death, Hassan had called his relatives to check on them and to let them know that he was leaving his base in the eastern province of Deir e-Zor to conduct a mission in eastern Homs, so “he might not be able to call them for a bit,” Abu Muhammad recalled.
A former opposition fighter in southern Syria, Hassan was drafted to patrol the desert in search of ISIS fighters following a reconciliation deal with the government. Thousands of other former opposition fighters suffer the same fate, forced to staff the ranks of the army they once fought.
He was killed in one of the dozens of ISIS attacks carried out since the group’s “defeat” in March 2019, when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized its last stronghold in the town of Baghouz in Deir e-Zor.
Since then, ISIS has attacked government soldiers, as well as Russian and Iranian-backed forces in the central Syrian Badiya in an attempt to prove that though its caliphate might no longer exist, the group is not going anywhere.
“The group has imposed invisible control over the Syrian Badiya that allows it to carry out attacks and use the desert for securing logistical supplies,” Hassan Abu Hanieh, an independent researcher and expert on Islamist groups, told Syria Direct.
Adapting to new conditions
Since the group lost its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq, it has begun engaging in guerilla warfare rather than “classical warfare and territorial control,” Abu Hanieh said, as a result of the “objectives and operational capacity of ISIS.” In the last few weeks, the group has stepped up its attacks in the Syrian Badiya and other regions and has released videos documenting those operations.
However, this escalation, according to Abu Hanieh, “doesn’t mean that ISIS is feeling a sense of urgency; it is not in a hurry as it is not fighting a traditional war which must be resolved quickly.” Rather, the group realized that it entered a “new stage” in its modus operandi after its “caliphate and territorial control” phase ended.
ISIS is expected to continue using guerilla tactics in the long term unless the situation on the ground changes in such a way that it will be possible for the group to shift to a new mode of warfare.
The latest escalation thus does not necessarily signify a shift in the group’s activity, but rather is indicative of the group “taking advantage of other parties in Syria being preoccupied in conflicts such as the conflict within the regime, and between the Astana [talks] sponsors. All of this helps the group,” Abu Hanieh added.
The majority of ISIS activity has been concentrated in Deir e-Zor, where at least 170 of the group attacks have been carried out since the beginning of this year, compared to a little under 10 in the Syrian Badiya in eastern Homs, according to Orabi Abdulhay Orabi, a researcher on religious movements and jihadism at Turkey-based Jusoor Center for Studies.
The group, however, is “unable to make a big difference in Badiya or control the city of al-Sukhna there,” Orabi told Syria Direct. Instead, ISIS can “ambush military convoys, and attack them with heavy machine guns or improvised explosive devices.”
Pro-government media has announced numerous attacks on the route towards Al-Sukhna, which is strategically valuable, as it lies on the road that is “effectively the only link between eastern Syria and [the cities of] Homs and Damascus,” according to Orabi. Adding that “oil, soldiers and supplies for militias all pass daily via the [al-Sukhna] road, and it is a vital artery for the regime.”
“It is a long route so it can’t be covered by observation posts, something which lets ISIS exhaust regime soldiers, as well as its Iranian allies, with continual attacks along the road.” It exploits the vulnerability of those traveling along the al-Sukhna road to “intimidate its enemies, drain their manpower and steal their vehicles, weapons and ammunition.”
The group is also sometimes able to capture soldiers, which they then use to gain intelligence or negotiate with the Syrian government for ransom or a prisoner swap, according to Orabi.
These new tactics suggest that ISIS is not acting randomly or arbitrarily, Abu Hanieh said, but rather that the group is acting on a specific strategy.
Nonetheless, the group does not have the numbers to “change the equation” in the area, especially since the routes to al-Sukhna are open and fighters can be seen from far away, according to Orabi.
The strategic reservoir
Historically, ISIS has thrived in desert environments. The group formed in the western Iraqi province of Anbar and has similarly capitalized on the Syrian Badiya since the fall of the so-called caliphate. The desert was “essential for ISIS’s formation and has allowed it to maintain its structure since,” Abu Hania said.
The Syrian Badiya provides “the ideal environment for ISIS to conduct an insurgency because it is so vast and has features like cave formations that allow fighters to hide out,” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the D.C.-based Center for Global Policy, told Syria Direct.
Today, the group is taking advantage of this long experience in the desert to survive, similar to how the Taliban and other extremist groups have used mountainous and desert-like terrain to sustain their guerilla wars.
Further, the group buried huge caches of weapons and other materials in the Syrian Badiya during its time controlling the area, just in case it ever had to resort to irregular warfare once again, Abu Hanieh explained. This, and its historical experience in the area, has allowed IS to successfully carry out several attacks in the areas around Palmyra and al-Sukhna.
Is the Syrian government unable or unwilling to stop IS?
IS is concentrated in Jabal al-Bishri, 55 km to the west of the city of Deir e-Zor. The prospect of catching the group fighters in this area is “next to impossible and would require a large number of soldiers with lots of experience,” given its vast and rugged terrain, Orabi said.
However, the Syrian government does not have many soldiers to spare, “something which is advantageous to ISIS and allows it to hide.”
While the hit-and-run strategy employed by ISIS allows its fighters to evade capture, the same strategy also prevents it from “advancing towards densely populated cities in the area, especially since they are located near military posts belonging to Iranian militias, the National Defense Force and Quds Brigade and the 13th division [of the government forces],” Orabi explained.
“The regime’s inability [to fight ISIS] must be acknowledged,” Abu Hanieh said. “It sends military expeditions to the Badiya, but they keep getting wiped out, with no results to show for it. I imagine there’s some Russian pressure on the regime to get rid of this annoyance,” he added.
Abu Hanieh reiterated that the reason for the Syrian government forces’ failures are due to “the vast areas and the regime’s lack of experience in this type of fighting, as it’s not classical warfare, which gives ISIS the upper hand.”
“Perhaps the Iranian militias are familiar with these kinds of tactics, but the Iranians have different goals than the regime. With the American-Iranian conflict, I don’t imagine that it’s in Iran’s interest to deploy a lot of troops in the Syrian Badiya to eliminate ISIS,” Abu Hanieh said.
Abu Hanieh pointed to the founder of ISIS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his de-facto alliance with Iran against the United States in Iraq during the Iraq War as evidence that Iran’s commitment to fighting the extremist group could shift one day.
Nonetheless, the Russian correspondent of ANNA News agency, Oleg Blokhin, claimed in a recent broadcast that “nothing remains of the once powerful and terrifying IS besides small criminal gangs. An organisation that once had big plans is fighting for survival.”
Just a few days before, “Pravda,” a Russian newspaper who embedded a reporter with Russian forces in Syria, denied also that there had been any battles in the areas around the gas wells of Hayan and al-Sha’ar near the city of al-Sukhna, contrary to the Syrian government’s reports.
According to the same report, the Syrian government published false reports of those battles to “cover up the recent decision of the Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources to ration electricity.”
On April 12, the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources said that “some of the wells in the area had stopped their production of gas because of the unstable security situation in the Badiya. This is sharply affecting the electrical network and consequently increasing the number of hours needing to be rationed.”
The future of ISIS
The continuing ISIS activity in the Syrian Badiya and Deir e-Zor province has prevented the Syrian government from claiming victory over the terrorist group. Rather, the activity of the group has “proved [the government] inability to do so,” Abu Hanieh said.
Further, the geographic division of Deir e-Zor between the government forces on the western side of the Euphrates and the SDF on the eastern side hinders comprehensive counterinsurgency efforts against the group.
“With the division of territorial control and the tensions between the foreign backers of the [Syrian] government and the SDF comes a lack of security coordination in combating ISIS on both sides of the Euphrates,” al-Tamimi said.
Even so, according to Orabi, “ISIS will likely be unable to assert control over the [Sukhna and Palmyra] area, especially in light of its lack of manpower and weakness in intelligence gathering.”
“ISIS knew that the Badiya would be its strategic reservoir in the future, and it won’t return to a model of territorial control,” Abu Hanieh explained. “Some cities might temporarily fall under its control, but complete control is no longer an option, as it’s expensive, and Russian and Syrian warplanes will immediately begin striking them.”
Still, the group “currently has the upper hand in the Badiya and its cities,” Abu Hanieh said.
This article was originally written in Arabic and translated by Will Christou.