Exploiting the weakened security environment in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has begun to reassert. Can the genie be put back?
ISIS - Its Rise and Fall in the Levant
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), swept through the demoralised and disorganised Iraqi Army to capture vast tract of Iraq. With the fall of strategic cities of Mosul and Tikrit and valuable oil fields, the Caliphate had a geographical identity, under its self-declared Caliph, Abu Bakr Baghdadi. Concurrently, it was spreading its tentacles beyond Iraq recruiting affiliates in several countries in Africa and Asia.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) under Qassim Soleimani was proactive in responding to Iraq’s pleas for help.
The western world too, was shaken into action when the brutal ISIS gained notoriety for its proclivity to make decapitation videos of western hostages. President Obama was compelled to prosecute a proxy war against the IS through the Kurd militias.
At the same time, there was an ongoing fight in Syria between the Sunni rebels and the Shia government. Russia, a long-term ally of President Assad, jumped into the fray. Caught between a coalition of unnatural allies, united by their shared hatred for a common enemy, the Caliphate was doomed. Iraq declared its victory over ISIS in 2017 and the capture of Bahuz Fawqani by Assad’s Syrian Army in 2019 crushed all organised resistance. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was killed by US Special Forces in northern Syria in October 2019.
Defeated in the battlefield with its cadre scattered all over the Levant and thousands in Kurd detention, ISIS had been reduced to a collection of die-hard supporters and affiliates.
ISIS is on a come back
The Kurd led, US supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) debilitated ISIS, capturing thousands of its cadre, who were detained in northern Syria. However, the Turkish invasion of NE Syria following the US withdrawal created a vacuum. There have been reports of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters breaking out from SDF detention camps.
A recent report, submitted to the UN Security Council states that ISIS has been “mounting increasingly bold insurgent attacks, calling and planning for the breakout of ISIS fighters in detention facilities and exploiting weaknesses in the security environment of both countries.”
The group manages to carry out at least 60 attacks a month against security forces in the Syrian regions of Al Raqqah, Al Mayadeen, Albukamal, Al Hasakah, Palmyra and Al Sukhnah. In Iraq, ISIS has focused on the provinces of Diyala, Erbil, Al Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din.
The bulk of ISIS fighters have sought refuge in Idlib Province, presently under intense attacks by Assad forces. In the prevailing confusion, the fighters and their dependents numbering almost 100,000 may be dispersed. Many ex-fighters escaped in October last year and remain untraceable.
Future Trajectory of ISIS -Regionally & Internationally
With an estimated US $100 million in funds, ISIS remains viable financially even after Abu Bakr’s demise. His successor, Amir Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al Mawla, is unlikely to change the overall strategy or priorities. It is assessed that the strategic direction of ISIS will not change dramatically, as it remains engaged with getting its flock together and seeking safe areas to regroup. Its foreign affiliates will continue with their campaign of terror attacks, including lone-wolf strikes.
Qassim Solimani’s death was a serious blow to the anti-ISIL campaign. His extensive contacts were invaluable in keeping a disparate coalition of Iranian militia, Sunni-Shia Iraqi military and Hezbollah fighters together. Dhia Al-Asadi, an Iraqi politician and former MP, said, "People are talking not only about ISIS but a new version that might arise now ...Soleimani is going to be missed by almost all those who were serious about fighting against Al-Qaeda and ISIS."
The West lacks the military capacity to confront the resurgence in ISIS military operations. 5,000 US troops are stationed in the country purportedly for the ISIS campaign but refrain from seeking active combat. There is also an international military training group training anti ISIL forces. NATO has recently announced that it will also form part of this training group. The Iraqi Parliament’s demand for the eviction of the US forces from Iraq stands although the Iraqi government backed down when threatened with American sanctions and demand for reparations.
Beyond its heartland in the Levant, threats from ISIS exist in Afghanistan, Africa and parts of South and South-East Asia. In West Africa, the affiliates are threatening fragile countries like Mali, while Boko Haram runs amok in Nigeria. In East Africa, Al-Shabaab maintains a steady pace of attacks. In the Philippines, ISIL affiliates are active along with fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia.
A worrying aspect is the return of IS foreign fighters and their families to their home countries. This may trigger a fresh wave of IS initiated terror.
All the factors conducive to a re-birth of ISIS, perhaps in an even more virulent form, are once again being created. Iraq is in chaos and Sunni concerns have not been addressed, nurturing the seeds of yet another internecine conflict. Without reconciliation between the Shia and Sunni Iraq and proper governance, ISIS’s rise is inevitable.
Weak economic development, employment problems, and significant economic, ethnic, and sectarian inequities all remain key forces. Along with this, governance and corruption have sustained extremist movements and internal conflict. If there is no political stability, it's always easy for terrorist organisations to manipulate local populations.
Much of the Sunni-majority areas that were ISIS strongholds still lie in destruction, mainly from US airstrikes, and some are now under the control of Iran-backed Shiite militias, which have antagonised much of the population with their sectarian tactics. Although the US has pushed other countries to contribute funds to help rebuild these areas, efforts have not been prioritised. These areas are ripe for ISIS recruitment and as safe sanctuaries.
Military losses have forced ISIS to relinquish the idea of ruling a geographical "caliphate", but the group retains that long-term aspiration and continues to proclaim it online. Supply lines still exist which sustain terrorist groups in the conflict zone. The international community has to get its act together before it’s too late.