ISIS threat likely to continue after Baghouz battle in eastern Syria
TUNIS - The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are engaged in one of the bitterest battles of the Syrian civil war as the US-backed coalition fights to claim the small amount of territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS) in eastern Syria.
Despite proclamations that the loss of territory would represent an end to ISIS, analysts have warned the threat the group poses would likely continue beyond the battle.
Entrenched in a small patch of land near the hamlet of Baghouz on the Iraqi border, a core of ISIS’s most hardened fighters appeared ready to fight to the last. Citizens, deserters and the jihadists’ wives and children have fled by the hundreds as coalition jets bombed the countryside and SDF fighters moved closer.
“We are facing severe fighting because the area that we are surrounding is very small,” Adnan Afrini, an SDF commander told the Guardian, a British newspaper, on February 13.
“It is very dense with fighters and they are among their most extreme and experienced soldiers. They use suicide bombers in their counterattacks and tunnels. There is no sign of surrender. The fighters left inside are the most extremist and ideologically driven militants.”
None of the Kurdish commanders or their Western backers anticipates that Baghouz will withstand the assault for long and, with its capture, the last remnants of ISIS’s caliphate would be expunged from Syria.
ISIS’s identity was indistinguishable from the caliphate, the project that ISIS established on territory approximately the size of Britain from which they carried out ritual executions and harshly ruled.
Thousands of international recruits flocked to ISIS’s banner. The group’s reach extended to the lucrative oil fields of Iraq and Syria, helping finance ISIS’s ambitions.
Despite the loss of territory, many of those resources remain.
Jeffrey Martini, senior Middle East researcher at the RAND Corporation, said CENTCOM Commander US Army General Joseph Votel noted that an estimated 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters had gone to ground in areas outside of Baghouz.
“So, while Baghouz is important given the concentration of fighters there, the overwhelming majority of ISIS fighters are not in Baghouz,” Martini said. “Unfortunately, this speaks to ISIS’s ability to mount insurgent attacks and potentially regain territory in the future.”
At its peak in 2015, ISIS was estimated to have generated around $6 billion in revenue. The Washington Post reported last December that analysis suggested the group had smuggled more than $400 million out of Syria and Iraq.
Michele Coninsx, assistant UN secretary-general in charge of counterterrorism, speaking to the UN Security Council, cautioned that the loss of territory would do little to diminish ISIS threat.
“Of all international terrorist organisations it remains the most likely to carry out a large-scale complex attack… and it continues its determination to undermine stabilisation efforts and to fuel sectarian tensions,” she said.
Much of ISIS’s ability to recruit lay not so much in the pull of the caliphate as with the push provided by recruits’ own circumstances.
“The appeal of ISIS is more about the socio-economic circumstances of people driven to join them than about them having territory,” said Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a think-tank in London, “As long as people suffer from social and economic deprivation and as long as ISIS have monetary resources, they will continue to find people to join.”
That Baghouz will fall looks certain. What the final loss of ISIS’s territory may mean for US actions in the region and those of Syria’s other international actors is not.
However, for ISIS, the future looks more sure. “As long as political, social and economic circumstances result in grievances within the population, ISIS will not be fully defeated,” Khatib said.