Containing a Resilient ISIS in Central and North-eastern Syria (Middle East Report N°236)


Executive Summary

ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – has shown considerable resilience since March 2019, when it lost the last piece of territory it held in Syria and Iraq. It has maintained, and in some cases expanded, a robust insurgency in four parts of Syria, each held by a different set of Syrian forces, three of which have foreign backers. Its adversaries, who are often at odds with one another, have siloed their counter-ISIS efforts and done little to stop the movement of militants across the permeable lines of control. ISIS is exploiting this disorder to bolster its fighting capacity. Policymakers on the various sides conducting counter-ISIS operations appear to be a long way from forging a détente, but they should nonetheless strive to avoid new conflict among themselves, which could only serve ISIS. They should ensure that their strategies account for developments in regions outside their control. They should also crack down on the smuggling routes that ISIS uses to transport fighters and supplies from one theatre to another.

The Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate came to an end with its defeat in the Syrian town of Baghouz near the Iraqi border. Since then, a multitude of parties have taken over the land that once made up its domain: the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilisation (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) paramilitary groups in Iraq; the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in north-eastern Syria (the U.S. also continues to launch airstrikes on ISIS targets in other parts of the country); Türkiye and its Syrian partners in northern Aleppo; the Islamist group Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib; and the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian allies in the central Syrian desert known as the Badia.

Today, ISIS leaders appear mostly to be providing broad guidance through online messaging rather than exercising day-to-day command over all the group’s members and sympathisers in Syria. The group now seems to operate on two levels: a core of militants acting on the leadership’s directives conducts complex attacks, while a second, larger set of decentralised cells carries out smaller, more frequent raids, intimidates the public and handles the money. In this manner, ISIS has entrenched communication and transit networks linking the country’s various regions, assigning its cells specific roles in each place and viewing its activities in each area as enhancing those in the others. ISIS is readying itself to pursue the goal of regaining overt territorial control if and when circumstances allow.

ISIS uses each of its four zones of influence in Syria in a distinct way. In the Badia, the rear base for its operations in Syria, as well as Iraq, it also trains most of its new recruits. In the north east, it gathers funds and stores supplies, as it stages attacks on security forces, technocrats and tribal notables to weaken public confidence in local governance. In the north and north west, it maintains hideouts for mid-level and senior commanders, who enjoy a degree of anonymity among the hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians living in makeshift settlements. The ISIS insurgencies in central and north-eastern Syria are particularly intertwined. The group moves men and materiel between regime- and SDF-controlled regions depending on its changing objectives, its logistical needs and its foes’ vulnerabilities in each area. These movements appear to be coordinated among central, regional and sub-regional commanders.

The ceasefires that froze Syria’s front lines in 2020 allowed Damascus and its external backers to redeploy troops to fight ISIS in the centre and east. This effort led to a drop in ISIS attacks on regime targets throughout 2021. Some ISIS fighters withdrew to even more remote parts of central Syria to avoid interdiction, while many others moved into Iraq or north-eastern Syria. This second cohort of fighters appears to have bolstered the cells in the latter areas, enabling ISIS to carry out more operations, including the spectacular January 2022 assault on the SDF-run prison in Hasakeh holding ISIS fighters and adolescent boys from Syria and Iraq, as well as third countries.

Omens of a large-scale ISIS attack had been visible for some time. Throughout much of 2020 and 2021, ISIS cells had been lying low in the north east, building an intelligence network, raising money through theft, extortion and smuggling, and degrading the SDF’s capacity to gather intelligence and provide services through its Autonomous Administration. The cells picked up the pace of their efforts in mid-2021, as their revenues grew.

SDF-held Syria is particularly vulnerable to a resurgent ISIS. The SDF, despite its earlier strides in battling the group, faces myriad problems that could derail counter-ISIS efforts and hamper its ability to guard the thousands of militants, as well as affiliated women, whom it holds in camps along with their children. ISIS cells are assassinating local SDF commanders and tribal notables, sowing fear in order to heighten their sway over people in areas the group previously controlled. In particular, the cells’ growing reach in Deir al-Zor has frightened residents, thwarting the SDF and U.S.-led coalition in efforts to collect intelligence. The SDF’s willingness and ability to counter ISIS is contingent on continued U.S. military support, and perhaps also lowered Turkish and regime threats to its rule.

Despite this unstable situation, those fighting ISIS can still prevent the group from resurging. Primarily, they will need to forgo conflict among themselves that could give ISIS a new lease on life. But they can do more than that.

In the north east, U.S.-led coalition members should expand their political and economic support, particularly where residents are at high risk of ISIS recruitment, such as Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, and increase material aid for and training of security forces. They should simultaneously push for reforms to policies in Arab-majority areas that have generated grievances of which ISIS takes advantage. With the U.S.-led coalition’s help, the SDF should also clamp down on corruption and smuggling.

Damascus and Moscow should likewise secure the lines of control in the Badia, as a stronger ISIS in the north east could soon try to bolster cells in the central desert with new recruits and supplies. The Badia’s oil and gas fields would be vulnerable to attack if ISIS were to return in significant numbers. The regime and its external backers should keep taking the fight to ISIS in central Syria. The group is unlikely to again pose the global menace it did when it ruled its caliphate some years ago. But in the right conditions, it could take advantage of the discord or distraction among its enemies to expand its military and financial reach and add misery to the lives of Syrians and Iraqis in areas where it operates.