Signs of resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq but some experts are cautious
TUNIS/ LONDON –After major military setbacks two years ago, ISIS is showing signs it is regrouping in parts of Iraq and Syria, stoking fears of a dreaded resurgence of the terror group in the war-weary countries. But some experts said the group’s lethal capacity remained far lower than in previous years and it has yet to show major tactical changes.
On May 7, ISIS attacked military vehicles belonging to the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Syrian desert, killing at least 11 soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog. The attack adds to numerous assaults in the vast desert region west of the Euphrates — including in Deir ez-Zor, Homs and Suwaidda — which have killed an estimated 515 pro-regime soldiers and loyalists since March 2019.
Experts have also expressed concern that the terror group is gaining ground in areas outside the US coalition’s reach, such as Syria’s Badiya desert.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, said ISIS’s activity in Badiya was a “great concern,” but that it had been largely unable to advance in the north-east of the country.
“The area around Deir el-Zor is, as we say these days, a hot spot. We’re watching that closely, but we are confident that we have it under control,” Jeffrey said.
In next-door Iraq, there have also been greater signs of aggressive designs from ISIS as the country’s fragile government focuses its efforts on fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 2, ISIS fighters killed 10 members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in fierce clashes in Salahaddin province, one of the most fatal encounters in the country in at least two years.
The PMF released a statement confirming that 10 of its men were killed by the terror group near the city of Balad, and said that it had killed “numerous” ISIS fighters.
Newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi called the ISIS attack a “desperate” ploy by the extremist group to regain power at a time of national crisis.
“The operation carried out by the criminal terrorist groups represents a desperate attempt to exploit the situation of political rivalry that hinders the formation of the government to carry out its national duty of ensuring the security of citizens,” said Kadhimi.
Earlier the same week, ISIS launched a series of blitz attacks throughout the country, including in towns near the capital Baghdad where it has long been inactive.
As far back as March 8, ISIS fighters killed two US marines accompanying Iraqi counterterror forces on a raid in the rugged Makhmur Mountains in northern Iraq. The close-range assault was referred to as one of the “most intense” US forces have participated in this year.
While ISIS lost all territorial control in Iraq in 2017, it has continued to conduct hundreds of small-scale attacks each year targeting security forces — and experts believe its recent assaults are an extension of this strategy.
But as Iraq now reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, government instability and a recent decline in oil prices, there are signs the group could be more of a threat.
Iraqi security forces, already overextended as they patrol cities during the COVID-19 lockdown, will also have to ready for ISIS assaults largely without US help, as American forces are scaling back their activity during the pandemic.
The US was already revising its strategy in Iraq after Iraq’s parliament voted in January to end US troop presence in the country after the targeted killing in Baghdad of Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, the foreign intervention arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
US-Iraqi military cooperation is scheduled for a review next June as part of the bilateral “strategic dialogue.”
Some analysts expressed concern that Iraq was in for a prolonged struggle against ISIS as it battles crises on all fronts.
“Before the emergence of the virus and before the American withdrawal, the operations were negligible, numbering only one operation per week,” one senior intelligence official told Asharq al-Awsat. “Now, he said, security forces are seeing an average of 20 operations a month.”
However, US coalition officials and other analysts highlighted that the group remained far weaker and was relying on “disinformation” to stay in the limelight.
“Despite what Daesh (ISIS) remnants are advertising, their attacks in Iraq are far less than in previous years,” US Lieutenant Colonel Savannah Halleaux, with the coalition’s Special Operations Joint Task Force, told Voice of America. “They are attempting to keep themselves relevant through disinformation on social media, regular media, and amplifying their messages for Recruitment.”
Jihadism expert Aaron Zellin added: “They’re following the same playbook as they did previously. Nothing new or innovative.”
“It is true that some attacks are also more qualitative than the recent past, but still don’t have the sophistication as previously overall,” Zelln told VOA. “Definitely something to continue to track and watch to see if it gets worse, but now it’s still a bit early to say they are where they had been, say, from 2014 to 2016.”
(With news agencies.)