Caliphate may be gone but ISIS’s shadow lingers

While, ISIS may retain little hunger for territorial conquest, its resources are significant.
Friday 26/10/2018
Shadow insurgency. A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces stands amid ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, on October 18. (Reuters)
Shadow insurgency. A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces stands amid ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, on October 18. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Islamic State (ISIS) is preparing to execute ten of what he said were 700 hostages every day if the militants’ demands were not met reminded the world that though ISIS may have been defeated, the group’s influence in Syria and Iraq lingers.

A UN report stated ISIS retains a sizeable fighting force in Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere, it was reported that the jihadists maintain access to vast resources of funds in the country and in other places.

Though its caliphate may be a memory, ISIS has the ability to disrupt and endanger daily life in Syria.

A US Defence Department spokesman disputed Putin’s claims, saying there had been an attack on a camp for internally displaced persons near Deir ez-Zor but that the Americans did not have information “supporting the large number of hostages alleged by President Putin and we are sceptical of its accuracy.”

While Putin’s comments rekindled memories of ISIS’s short-lived, bloody caliphate, concerns over an ISIS resurgence are likely overstated.

“I think we tend to talk about resurgence without considering the long term or even the midterm, for that matter,” said Jason Burke, who has written several books on Islamic militancy. “If you look at where ISIS was two, let alone four years ago, it’s difficult really to talk about any kind of genuine return in force.”

Burke acknowledged, however, that “ISIS remains a threat, particularly given the sectarian and political dynamics of the region but the group’s ability to disrupt, inspire, recruit and project extreme violence out of the Middle East and into the West seems to me to be still significantly circumscribed.”

While ISIS may retain little hunger for territorial conquest, its resources are significant. A UN report released in August said that, contrary to claims by US-led coalition forces, ISIS has a covert force of 20,000-30,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Despite losing 98% of its territory, ISIS is said to have access to billions of dollars extracted by the caliphate through taxation and oil revenues. The group is also said to have access to an estimated $400 million claimed by an Iraqi legislator to have been smuggled out by the caliphate during the fall of Mosul last January.

Still, the prospect of ISIS exerting control over territory the scale of its former caliphate seems unlikely. Syria is highly militarised, with vast areas occupied by competing local and international forces, united in nothing but their opposition to ISIS.

Nevertheless, IHS Markit’s Conflict Tracker recorded a six-fold increase in the number of bomb attacks against US and Syrian Democratic Forces personnel since June.

The bulk of those are believed to have been carried out by “Syrian tribes against foreign intervention and the American presence on Syrian soil” in an alliance formed in June and believed to be funded, at least in part, by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IHS Markit said. A significant number of the attacks are thought to be the work of ISIS sleeper cells.

“There’s been an increase in ISIS attacks against Syrian government forces in the Homs desert over the last couple of months by elements pushed out of Damascus/Sweida,” said Columb Strack, principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS Markit. “Some ISIS militants trapped on the eastern side of the Euphrates near Bu Kamal (Abu Kamal) are reportedly also negotiating safe passage with the Syrian government to Idlib.

“I wouldn’t describe this as a resurgence though. They are very close to losing what remains of their governance project and are desperately looking for ways out.”

Denied its caliphate, ISIS’s influence and its capacity to disrupt linger. While the territory ISIS controls diminished, there are the funds, manpower and determination for the group to retain whatever influence over Syria’s future it can.