ISIS flag lying on the ground in al-Baghouz village in the Syrian Deir Ez-Zor governorate, 24/03/2019 (AFP)
AMMAN – Since the “caliphate” that the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) declared over wide swathes of Syria and Iraq in July 2014 was officially eliminated, the terrorist group’s remaining presence in Syria has been shrouded in controversy.
While the President of the United States, Donald Trump, announced the “100%” defeat of ISIS in Syria on March 22, 2019, the battle to clear its last stronghold in al-Baghouz village in east Deir Az-Zor had yet to come to an end.
Today, despite its total loss of territories in Syria and Iraq, and the subsequent dispersal of its fighters across the eastern Syrian desert and al-Anbar province in western Iraq, ISIS still poses a danger. Besides immediate terror attacks, there is a risk that former fighters will regroup and return an even more dangerous force than when they first invaded Mosul, Iraq in 2014.
Such a scenario is what general commander of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Mazlum Abdi warned of immediately after his forces took control of al-Baghouz. In an article published on March 25, he warned of “sleeper cells that terrorist groups had planted,” and of the emergence of a rebellion that “uses unique tactics in individual terrorist acts, such as explosions and assassinations.”
Such warnings were reiterated by the United States Lead Inspector General on Aug. 7th. In his quarterly report on Operation Inherent Resolve, published on Aug. 7, he said that “ISIS has established ‘resurgent cells,’” and is “[continuing] its transition from a territory-holding force to an insurgency in Syria … [carrying] out assassinations, suicide attacks, abductions and arson of crops in both Iraq and Syria.”
ISIS has carried out several attacks and bombings across Syria in recent months that have targeted all parties of the conflict.
At least 172 soldiers from Syrian government forces and its allied militias were killed in ISIS attacks between March 24 and June 30, 2019, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Two Russian soldiers and 12 from Iran-backed militias were among those killed.
The group also embarked on what it called, “Vengeance for Sham [the Levant],” in April 2019, in which it carried out several attacks on the SDF in Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and Deir Ez-Zor provinces.
ISIS changes its tactics
After losing its territory, ISIS changed its tactics from full-scale military assaults to hit-and-run, or guerilla-style attacks. While the tactical shift is unsurprising, the number of recent attacks attributed to ISIS has prompted questions.
“Daesh has abandoned the [idea] of holding onto territory and has begun to work as an armed gang,” Ismael Abdul Rahman Ayoub, a Syrian expert in military strategy said to Syria Direct. “It is [now] infiltrating under the cover of night, or by exploiting bad weather to carry out attacks on oil lines or isolated military bases belonging to militias or other armed groups.”
ISIS cells in al-Badiya (or the eastern desert) rely on “quick movement from one place to another so that no one can find the location of their fighters,” a source in the Revolutionary Commando Army, which is headquartered in al-Tanf, told Syria Direct. They also noted that “these operations do not need a lot of mobile equipment, since they are quick to [carry out].”
The nature of al-Badiya’s terrain also plays a large role in ISIS’s operations. Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Syria Direct: “The Badiyah includes open spaces and rugged areas in which [ISIS] units can hide, then launch attacks on checkpoints and barracks on roads and city outskirts. [ISIS] may benefit from the human element in that area – particularly some itinerant Bedouins – to secure supplies and cover for its movements.”
However, even as the terrorist group targets its soldiers, the Syrian government is benefiting from ISIS’s presence.
“The regime is attempting to benefit from the propaganda that there is still a war with terrorists, even though it protected them, transferred them and helped them grow and survive,” Ahmad Hamada, a Syrian military analyst, told Syria Direct.
The presence of ISIS also contributes to the idea that the regime is being targeted by terrorists, as well as keeps international attention away from “the regime’s heinous crimes against the Syrian people,” Hamada added.
In July 2019, ISIS fighters carried out several attacks on villages in the eastern countryside of the southern Suweida governorate, followed by at least two suicide bombings in Suweida city center, killing more than 200 people and wounding 300 others, civilians and soldiers alike. Also, about 40 women and children were abducted, according to reports published by SOHR and local news network “Suwayda 24.”
However, local military factions and notable people in the governorate accused the Syrian government of being behind the attacks, pointing to the fact that hours before the “bloody attack,” the government withdrew its forces from eastern Suweida.
The incident became a major point of contention for the governorate, where Druze constitute the majority of the population. A military commander of the local armed group, Rijal al-Karamah (Men of Dignity), did not rule out the possibility of another attack on Suweida. “We observed movements from ISIS as they tried to cut off the road from Suweida to Damascus to put pressure on Suweida,” he told Syria Direct.
The military commander, speaking under the condition of anonymity for security reasons, accused the Syrian government of using “ISIS as a means of [applying] pressure” on the governorate. He added that “the regime cannot pressure the people of al-Jabal [Suweida] and the lowland [Daraa] on several issues, therefore it uses ISIS to pressure us. ISIS cells are coordinating with the regime and its security apparatuses.”
Targeting supply lines
In addition to the reliance on the new hit-and-run style attacks, ISIS has begun to focus its attacks on the regime’s resources and supply lines.
On July 14, the Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported that a gas pipeline running from the Shaer gas field to the Ebla gas plant east of the city of Homs was put out of service “as a result of terrorist activity.”
A week later, on July 21, a train transporting phosphate was targeted by an explosive charge in eastern Homs, which caused it to derail from the tracks and injured several of its crew. The Syrian government’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said that the attack was the work of terrorists.
“[The incident] occurred in an area completely under the control of Russia. It has military forces [stationed] there, [the area] is monitored from the air by drones, and it is close to airfields,” Ayoub said.
“[The incident] bears the hallmarks of Shiite militias in one form or another, so it could be the case of a disagreement or a dispute [between Russia and Iran].”
Ayoub added that Shiite militias want to “embarrass Russia and show that terrorists are still present and that it needs Iran’s [soldiers] in Syria and, thus, maintain the Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria [through which Iran aims to] complete the ‘Shiiatization’ project and stay in Syria in the long term.”
The People’s Council of Syria (the Syrian government’s legislative chamber) approved a contract between the Syrian Ministry of Oil and the Russian company, Story Trans Gas, granting the latter the right to invest and extract phosphate in the eastern mines southwest of Palmyra for “a period of fifty years, or until the consumption of the entire [phosphate] reserve in this section.”
Prior to this, lucrative contracts in the oil and gas sector had also been handed off to Russian companies. In June 2017, the Syrian government ratified a memorandum of understanding with the Russian company, Euro Pulse.
Under the MOA, the Russian company would clear the oil and gas fields of ISIS in eastern Homs and then maintain, operate and protect the fields in exchange for a quarter of the production profits for five years.
Euro Pulse contracted the Russian private security company, Wagner, to perform the ‘clearing operation,’ letting the Syrian government foot the contract’s bill.
According to the military expert Hamada, oil and phosphate transport lines are owned by Russia and Iran, and that what comes back to the “Assad gang is crumbs.” Consequently, the attacks on the lines “will embarrass the Russians and Iranians and make them more cautious, and will compel them to [deploy] forces to defend the [lines], [which will] exhaust them.”
Ayoub believes that “the continuation of operations like this will affect the economic situation,” adding that “if the Russians want to address this situation, they must work for a political solution in Syria that removes this corrupt regime.”