Beirut, Lebanon – ISIL (ISIS) is believed to have carried out a spate of attacks in the past week in northeastern Syria, an indication, experts and monitors have said, that the group is potentially on the rise once again.
A suspected ISIL attack at a Ramadan iftar gathering near Deir Az Zor on Wednesday killed seven people, including the former spokesperson of the United States-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, Nouri Hamish.
The brazen nature of the attack has alarmed residents, and analysts and humanitarian agencies now fear that increased attacks could risk life-saving humanitarian work in the impoverished region, and put millions of vulnerable people at risk of attack.
ISIL has increased its attacks in northeast Syria after US special forces assassinated then-leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi and his official spokesperson.
Current ISIL spokesman Abu Omar al-Muhajir called on ISIL fighters to avenge their deaths on April 17 in an audio message called “Vengeance for the Two Sheikhs”.
According to the northeast Syria-based media group Rojava Information Center, ISIL has conducted at least 20 attacks since then.
“[The attacks have occurred] particularly in Deir Az Zor, but also in areas usually spared [from] ISIS violence, such as Manbij, Raqqa, and Jazeera,” Sasha Hoffman, a researcher with the Rojava Information Center, told Al Jazeera. “In just 10 days, ISIS carried out more confirmed attacks in northeast Syria than in February and March combined.”
Hoffman believes the timing of ISIL’s operation was strategic, as “international attention is elsewhere” – notably in war-torn Ukraine.
“The move is likely as much taking advantage of the geopolitical vacuum as it is attempting to focus world attention back on the group,” the researcher said.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, ISIL carried out at least 82 other armed operations in 2022, in addition to the Thursday shooting, killing 63 civilians and SDF fighters.
ISIL once controlled an area across Syria and Iraq equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom, but has since lost its de facto state.
It has since transformed with sleeper cells littered across towns and villages, where it conducts guerilla-style attacks.
In addition to the re-emergence of ISIL, civilians in northeastern Syria are also facing the prospect of an effect on the work of humanitarian groups in the region.
“Events over the past few weeks are a reminder that a return of violence could derail all efforts for a lasting peace in the northeast,” Bahia Zrikem, policy and advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Syria Response Office, told Al Jazeera.
“Any escalation could endanger all humanitarian efforts and lead to grave consequences for vulnerable people.”
Eleven years since Syria’s anti-government protests turned into a civil war, more than 60 percent of the population reportedly face hunger as food and fuel prices skyrocket. Millions remain displaced.
Donor fatigue has also reduced the amount of money available to humanitarian groups.
The United Nations World Food Programme recently reduced the size of its food rations in northwestern Syria as charities struggle to cope with funding shortages despite dire living conditions.
The concern now is that an increase in attacks will exacerbate the humanitarian situation, and make it even more difficult for those in need to get help.
Northeast Syria has grown more dangerous this year, with an ISIL attack on a prison in Hassakeh in late January a sign of things to come.
That fight ended after a week, but only after almost 200 civilians and combatants were killed, and 45,000 displaced.
In an April 17 statement, ISIL hinted at larger attacks, notably in northeastern Syria’s al-Hol camp.
The camp houses “over 50,000 ISIS-linked individuals”, according to Hoffman. Human rights organisations have likened al-Hol to an open-air prison.
The camp in total houses more than 60,000 people, mostly women and children related to ISIL combatants, including citizens from more than 60 countries.
ISIL and its supporters have demanded that those held at the camp be released, and Kurdish-led forces have struggled to control the camp, leading the head of the UN Assistance Mission Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, to call it a “ticking time bomb” earlier in April.