‘Constant fear’: Iraq and Syria face ISIL resurgence

ISIL’s ‘caliphate’ was destroyed in March 2019 but its ideology and socioeconomic fault lines that gave birth to it are still intact in the region.

Children look at a member of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) after leaving the ISIL group's last holdout of Baghouz in Syria's northern Deir Az Zor province [File: Bulent Kilic/AFP]

Rania Najim Abed is terrified that ISIL (ISIS) might return to Tel Eskof, her hometown in northern Iraq, 15km (9 miles) from the armed group’s former stronghold of Mosul.

In 2014, Abed, 23, and her Christian family fled the Nineveh plains for Kirkuk to escape ISIL. The group had massacred minorities and established the so-called Islamic caliphate that straddled Iraq and Syria and was about the size of Britain.

Then, in 2016, ISIL attacked Kirkuk. “I was in the medical college in Kirkuk,” she said. “I was so scared that they might abduct me as they had done with so many other girls. Thankfully the Kurdish forces protected us.”

The same year the Iraqi government announced the defeat of ISIL and Abed returned home. But the group’s resurgence makes her feel unsafe once again.

“We live in constant fear,” Abed told Al Jazeera. “Despite their defeat in Iraq and in Syria, there are still so many ISIL attacks. There was an attack in Kirkuk, in Diyala, in Salah-ad-din, in Baghdad. I know that these areas are far from my town, but we are near the desert and ISIL is everywhere in the Iraq-Syria desert.”

Never left

ISIL’s physical “caliphate” was destroyed with the battle of Baghouz in Syria in March 2019, but the ideology and socioeconomic fault lines that gave birth to it are still intact in the region.

In reality, many ISIL fighters never left the Syria-Iraq border and just dispersed to regroup another day, while others returned to their bastions as vigilance reduced and their circumstances eased.

Over the last year, both Iraq and Syria have witnessed a major uptick in ISIL attacks. In Iraq, nearly 600 ISIL assaults were recorded in just the first quarter of 2020, whereas in Syria deaths are reported almost daily in areas such as Deir Az Zor and hundreds have been killed in targeted attacks.

One soldier was posted in the 17th division in the Syrian army in Deir Az Zor until recently.

“ISIS attacked one of the division trucks outside and killed all the recruits in May 2020. My colleagues and I were very much afraid, and had sleepless nights fearing an ISIS attack,” he told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.

“They terrorise guards at the military checkpoints who face maximum risk as well as those who collaborate with the Syrian regime. There are daily reports of killings.”

ISIL ‘threat is very real’

A number of factors and forces contributed to the group’s survival, including the diversion of security forces to maintain curfews during the coronavirus lockdown.

While no one doubts the armed group is trying to lure recruits and regain its lost strength, there is a debate over just how much of a threat it presents.

With US President Joe Biden taking power, the question of how to stem ISIL’s resurgence has acquired renewed significance.

Currently, there are 2,500 American troops in Iraq and just below 700 in northeast Syria. ISIL, according to a UN estimate, still has 10,000 fighters and between $300m and $500m in reserves.

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces watch as smoke billows after shelling ISIL positions in Baghouz in eastern Deir Az Zor province [Delil Souleiman/AFP]

The group is not as resourceful as it was, neither is it hanging corpses on city squares or filming beheadings to terrify the world.

But it has been steadily attacking local police and military checkpoints. Over the last year, it increased the frequency and intensity of its attacks in Syria and Iraq.

It launched bigger attacks against security forces in Syria and sent suicide bombers into the middle of a crowded market in Baghdad, luring shoppers towards them before blowing themselves up.

Olivier Guitta, a security consultant, said ISIL has never been defeated.

“ISIS’s threat is very, very real,” he said. “For two years after going underground, ISIS has been regrouping in Iraq and preparing for the next phase. It has been controlling a lot of villages and instilling fear in the hearts of the residents.”

Guitta said the new leadership of ISIL possibly emerged from among the fighters who were allowed to leave Raqqa by coalition forces.

In October 2017, hundreds of fighters and thousands of their family members left the caliphate’s capital city under a secret deal and spread across Syria. Some even made it to Turkey, the gateway to the West.

“The coalition made a huge mistake by letting ISIS jihadists leave with their weapons from Raqqa. Some of the middle to top cadre of ISIS had time to plan their strategy of re-emergence,” said Guitta.

A year later, President Bashar al-Assad’s government allowed ISIL members in control of Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees, to cross into the desert area to the east of Syria known as the Badiya.

These fighters later returned west, attacking the Druze town of Suweida, unleashing hell against a people who had tried to remain neutral in the long conflict.

Many in Suweida accused al-Assad of deliberately sending ISIL in their direction to punish them for refusing to join his army under mandatory conscription and fight on his side in the conflict, and later refusing to allow his army back in as the war wound down.

A man sits on the roof of a damaged building in the eastern Syrian village of Baghouz in March 2020 [File: Delil Souleiman/AFP]

‘Narrowing the gap between Arabs and Kurds’

However, in certain other parts of Syria where ISIL is believed to have a foothold, both the regime and the Kurds are fighting it.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat, said mistrust between US-backed Kurdish forces and Arab tribes on the ground – among whom or around whom ISIL lived – is another reason the group has survived.

He said ISIL would not be eliminated so long as the Kurds are the United States’ main allies.

“The US made a mistake when it counted on the Kurdish forces as the only partner to work with,” he said, pointing to how that left out anti-ISIL Arabs and made them feel jilted.

“The US should be serious in narrowing the gap between the Arabs and the Kurds and clear that Arab areas should be ruled by Arab people, not by the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces], which is dominated by Kurds.”

The Biden administration, however, sees the Kurds as effective local allies who defeated ISIL without inflicting much of a cost on the US.

While 10,000 Kurds died fighting ISIL, the fewer than 2,000 American soldiers deployed to support them acted as advisers rather than front-line troops.

Sectarian tensions

Dhia al-Assadi, an academic and former chair of Al-Ahrar Parliamentary Bloc in the Iraqi parliament, said the focus must be on uniting the religious scholars of the Arab world to denounce ISIL and the ideology of sectarianism.

“The religious men in many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, and elsewhere are issuing fatwas which legitimise ISIS’s killings in Iraq,” he said.

“They say that there should not be a Shia government in Iraq. This creates sectarian tensions which in turn strengthens groups like ISIS.”

ISIL’s emergence has been attributed to myriad factors including the rise of Shia militias in Iraq in the years since the US invasion of 2003.

Since Iran-backed Shia militias exercise overwhelming influence over the governments in Iraq and Syria there is a concern ISIL may use the sense of disenfranchisement among the Sunni youth to recruit them once again.

In fact, when ISIL claimed responsibility for the Baghdad attack last month it said it was meant to target Shia groups and Iraq’s security forces.

‘Waging a guerrilla campaign’

Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy, said although weakened, ISIL was well-prepared to sustain a lingering uprising in central and eastern Syria and western Iraq.

In a recent article, he said the group continued to be a threat to the West, too, which is currently preoccupied with far-right groups, “potentially allowing some jihadist supporters and sympathisers to fly under the radar”.

“There is no doubt that ISIS has been weakened, especially core ISIS in Iraq and Syria which has lost its physical caliphate,” Clarke told Al Jazeera.

“However, it is important to recognise that ISIS is resilient and is already waging a guerrilla campaign that includes sniper attacks, assassinations, and ambushes.”

Aron Lund, a researcher at the Swedish Defense Agency, said ISIL was a threat to Europe but also warned against exaggeration.

“It’s definitely something to keep an eye on, but it’s also worth keeping a cool head,” Lund said.

“For European countries, the main problem at the moment seems to be self-starters and crazies inspired by online propaganda, who will sometimes have limited support from handlers in Iraq and Syria. It’s a threat best tackled through properly resourced police work, international coordination, and responsible political rhetoric that doesn’t overstate the danger.”

The US has a fine line to walk in a region where many see it as an occupying force and are calling on it to leave, and yet all the while rely on American tools and training to contain the ISIL threat.

Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi analyst, said Biden should first clearly define his endgame and the time frame he intends to achieve it in.

“US counter-ISIS policy has to be supporting local forces rather than directly engaging ISIS,” he said.

“It has been doing this well in Iraq and other areas, but this policy should have defined end goals so that it is not a forever involvement and steps up the capacity of national forces to be self-dependent.”

Source: Al Jazeera