Can Assad regime use ISIS presence as propaganda tool?

The ISIS presence in the Syrian Desert has gone largely unnoticed as the international alliance battling the jihadists has been driving the militia towards the Iraqi border.
Sunday 10/03/2019
Caliphate’s final days. Men suspected of being ISIS members sit at a screening area held by the  US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, March 6. (AFP)
Caliphate’s final days. Men suspected of being ISIS members sit at a screening area held by the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, March 6. (AFP)

LONDON - While international attention was focused on an attack on the last bastion of the Islamic State (ISIS) on Syria’s border with Iraq, Syrian troops have been bombing ISIS fighters holding out in a vast stretch of desert further west.

The ISIS presence in the Syrian Desert has gone largely unnoticed as the international alliance battling the jihadists has been driving the militia towards the Iraqi border but the desert in southern Syria has now become a battlefield.

US-backed forces have laid siege to Baghouz on the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zor, near the Iraqi border. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had slowed their assault on Baghouz because civilians, previously thought to have evacuated, were trapped in the area.

Baghouz is the last populated territory that ISIS holds. The number of ISIS fighters in Baghouz is unknown. Mostafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters that “1,000 give or take” were in the enclave.

Baghouz is the last territory held by ISIS east of the Euphrates. Under a US-Russian agreement, the United States and the SDF have been fighting ISIS east of the river, while Russia, the most important partner of Syrian President Bashar Assad, controls the skies west of the Euphrates.

US President Donald Trump declared that ISIS had been “100%” defeated but observers say that, while that statement may be true for much of the geographical former ISIS “caliphate,” it ignores the fact that many ISIS fighters are at large in Syria.

Outside the US and SDF area, an unknown number of ISIS members are thought to be hiding in parts of the Syrian Desert in a government-controlled part of Syria between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor.

The Syrian military mounted air strikes against ISIS and clashed with militants in central Syria, Reuters quoted the pro-Damascus al-Watan newspaper as saying.

The flare-up in al-Sukhnah, between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor, included “a number of air strikes” targeting ISIS in eastern parts of the desert, al-Watan reported, citing a military source.

The Syrian Army recaptured al-Sukhnah in 2017 as it pushed ISIS across central Syria along the crucial desert highway from Palmyra to Deir ez-Zor. However, some ISIS fighters remained in the rugged desert areas and have attacked army positions and convoys, a pro-Damascus source told Reuters.

Al-Masdar News, a website that says it “supports any lawfully elected government in Syria,” reported in February that 1,500-3,000 ISIS members — up to three times as many as in Baghouz — were thought to be in the region.

Al-Masdar News said Syrian government troops initiated a “policing” operation against ISIS in the Syrian Desert. No details were available.

ISIS remnants hauled up in the region do not pose a significant military threat, said Spyros Plakoudas, an expert on international relations and security at the American University of the Emirates in Dubai.

“The ISIS military machine has been crippled by the attacks of the SDF and the area is sparsely inhabited and in the middle of the desert,” Plakoudas said in a telephone interview.

Despite the military superiority of the Syrian Army and its Russian partners, Damascus has not shown much determination to tackle ISIS forces in the region, however. “Why isn’t Assad doing anything about this? There can be one reason only: Assad wants to use ISIS as a bogeyman,” Plakoudas said.

Plakoudas said Assad wanted to employ the last ISIS fighters as a “weapon of propaganda,” telling the international community: “Please support me. I can offer security.”

The ISIS area in the Syrian Desert is close to two regions with great economic significance for Syria. Deir ez-Zor is home to most of the oil reserves of the country and Palmyra has most of Syria’s natural gas.

Plakoudas said Assad’s attention was focused on the north-western province of Idlib, where thousands of Islamists and other rebel fighters were surrounded by government troops. A Russian-Turkish deal, struck last year, has prevented an all-out onslaught by Assad’s forces on the region on the Turkish border but the truce has been shaken by fighting in recent weeks.

8