Lost amid the headlines, for Syria, ISIS threat remains

Denied physical control of towns, cities and services, ISIS can occupy territory but its ability to inspire is uncertain.
March 11, 2018
An ISIS flag flutters above a destroyed house near the Clock Square in Raqqa, last October 18.  (Reuters)
Poisonous legacy. An ISIS flag flutters above a destroyed house near the Clock Square in Raqqa, last October 18. (Reuters)

TUNIS - As the world’s great powers tussle for advantage over Syria’s battlefields, the Islamic State (ISIS) has receded from the headlines and public consciousness.

Though ISIS languishes in isolated pockets throughout much of Syria’s desert hinterlands or within the jails of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the philosophy that fuelled its nihilistic ambition thrives. It is ingrained in the central tenets of groups such as al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam and lies, hidden from cameras, among Turkish militias besieging the Kurdish province of Afrin.

As the carnage and chaos of a rapidly metastasising conflict extracts its blood price from the people of Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, the appeal of jihadism’s certainties to the young and disenfranchised of Syria remains as strong as ever.

However, for ISIS, denied the terrain and territory that established the group’s dominance, the undimmed hatred of the regime and its allies that rages within Idlib and Eastern Ghouta may bring only a limited advantage.

There are thought to be 6,000-11,000 active ISIS fighters in Syria. Hundreds more are in crowded prisons of the US-allied Kurds. Others, considered by the Kurds to pose no imminent threat, returned to their villages. The fate of thousands of foreign fighters who flocked to Syria to wage holy war remains a source of international dispute.

For the captured international ISIS fighters nothing is certain.

Russia has indicated it may repatriate its fighters but many other countries are refusing.

The legal issues are overwhelming. As the Washington Post reported in January, many countries, including the United States, are proving reluctant to repatriate ISIS fighters without evidence to prosecute them, something intensely difficult to collect during battlefield captures.

Like so much of what remains in ISIS’s wake, confusion appears to be the dominant factor and, within Syria, it is this that will help what remains of the group.

“I think Syria’s chaos definitely helps ISIS,” Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said in e-mailed comments. “With so many shifting alliances and groups fighting on the ground, there is little agreement between states and non-state actors that ISIS is the number one priority.”

The weakness of the Syrian state plays a role in creating a vacuum where ISIS could possibly recover. “Because the Syrian regime can’t project force into all of the areas of its territory, ISIS will seek these places out, rest/rearm/recuperate and seek to persist until they are strong enough to launch further strikes,” Clarke said.

ISIS’s core attraction was always its state-building activities. Other groups were satisfied in aiding the long march to the destined caliphate but ISIS established a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Denied physical control of the towns, cities and services whose existence stood as proof of its divine mandate, ISIS can continue to occupy territory but its ability to inspire is uncertain.

“ISIS enjoys very little popular support in the areas they still occupy,” Clarke said. “[It is] no longer providing the services of a state, as [it] once did during the apex of their caliphate and, furthermore, any popular support they still enjoy is likely more a result of hatred for the Assad regime than anything else.”

Lost within the confusion of Syria, ISIS remains and its potential threat cannot be dismissed. As David M. Satterfield, the US State Department’s acting top Middle East diplomat warned a US Senate hearing in January: “Many of its core leadership and cadre avoided the fight. They remain present and they remain coherent.”