ISIS remains as a covert force across Syria and Iraq

ISIS is playing out its zero-sum game with the governments of Damascus and Baghdad.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Ticking bomb. An Iraqi fighter looks at an  Islamic State flag and  ammunition displayed in  al-Alam,  Saladin  province. (Reuters)
Ticking bomb. An Iraqi fighter looks at an Islamic State flag and ammunition displayed in al-Alam, Saladin province. (Reuters)

TUNIS - A report from the US Department of Defence puts the number of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Syria and Iraq at between 28,600-31,600 while a UN report, released August 13, estimates them at 20,000-30,000.

The United Nations and Pentagon estimates, if correct, would mean that, despite the significant loss of territory and $14.3 billion expended on more than 24,000 air strikes against the group, ISIS’s numbers remain relatively unchanged from previously reported highs.

The UN report stated that the group, which the Iraqi, Syrian and Russian governments all declared “defeated” at the end of 2017, morphed from a proto-state to a “covert” force of isolated groups of fighters prepared to strike as circumstances demand.

Pentagon spokesman US Navy Commander Sean Robertson told Voice of America that ISIS “is well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.”

While the figures in both reports are much higher than other recent estimates, analysts expressed uncertainty over their accuracy.

“The numbers are going to be very rough estimates that are within a 50% margin of error, based on the careful counting of camps and attack cells and making some informed assumptions,” said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. “They will tend to be pessimistic because it is better to overstate than understate a threat. So [the real number is] somewhere between the stated numbers and half of those numbers, including both hardcore jihadis and local affiliates who may be easier to detach.”

No longer controlling large areas, ISIS operates in small groups across Syria and Iraq.

“Many of these fighters remain in and around towns and villages in the Euphrates River Valley and then in smaller pockets scattered throughout Syria and Iraq,” said Colin Clarke, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

“Many are presumably laying low and waiting for the US coalition to reduce its presence. There are also clandestine attempts to reorganise small cells of fighters. Think of it as the three ‘R’s,’ or resting, recuperating and rearming. A critical issue is going to be, without holding large swaths of territory, how will ISIS fund its organisation as it seeks to reorganise?”

The July attack in Sweida province in Syria, which resulted in the death of more than 200 people, is an indication of ISIS’s continuing threat.

“I think it’s very likely that ISIS will be able to take and hold territory in the future, just nowhere on the level that it was able to do so [from 2014-16],” Clarke said. “Even though the Assad regime is consolidating control over large portions of Syria, it still lacks the capacity to police and govern areas in the rural Sunni heartland formerly (and, in some cases, still) ruled by various cross-sections of rebels, warlords, and militia groups.”

The UN report noted that ISIS’s internal discipline remains intact with its fighters ready to strike at targets determined by a battered but still functioning hierarchy.

Few of ISIS’s remaining fighters, Knights said, would be new. Rather, “most (will be) seasoned. There are always younger brothers of fighters but their main recruitment areas are now lost to them,” he said.

Attacks such as the one at Sweida fall within a larger pattern, Knights noted. “By killing local leaders, they aim to convince people that they, not the government, are in charge, and thus ramp up recruitment,” he said.

ISIS is playing out its zero-sum game with the governments of Damascus and Baghdad. “If the Assad government or other governing entity in a particular territory is deemed unpopular, draconian or corrupt,” Clarke noted, “ISIS, by default, will become more popular.”

“The group gained a reputation for brutal, yet effective, governance,” he said.