Syria’s desert, the staging ground for ISIS’s continued insurgency

ISIS assault on the desert town of Abu Kamal provided an outline of the militant group’s shifting strategy within Syria.
Wednesday 13/06/2018
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather at the al-Tanak oil field as they prepare to relaunch a military campaign against Islamic State militants, near Abu Kamal, province of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on May 1. (AFP)
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather at the al-Tanak oil field as they prepare to relaunch a military campaign against Islamic State militants, near Abu Kamal, province of Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, on May 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - The surprise Islamic State (ISIS) assault on the desert town of Abu Kamal, in which approximately 25 government fighters and their allies were killed, provided an outline of the militant group’s shifting strategy within Syria, as well as highlighting flaws in the regime’s.

Over recent years, the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, with the support of Russia as well as the United States and its Kurdish allies, have allowed whatever remaining fighters holding out in a targeted city the option of leaving.

For many rebel militias, sanctuary was found in the northern province of Idlib on the Turkish border. However, for the remnants of ISIS, the desert reaches of southern Syria, stretching into Iraq and Jordan, have provided safe harbour.

The desert is being used as the staging ground for ISIS and the insurgency against the Assad regime.

Analyst Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the jihadists would rely on their deep knowledge of the Syrian desert and adjacent Iraqi areas.

“Eastern Syria and north-eastern Iraq will continue to be the soft underbelly of both countries and where ISIS will operate for many years to come,” he said.

“The group knows the area very well, has established an insurgency infrastructure in the deserts, river valleys and rural areas stretching from Kirkuk and Diyala in Iraq to the Qalamoun region near Damascus in Syria.”

Its enemies, Hassan said, are unable “to police and secure these areas in a sustainable way.”

Ten suicide bombers emerged from the desert wastes on June 8, forcing the regime from positions within the contested town of Abu Kamal close to the Iraqi border.

In May, 26 regime fighters and their allied militias were killed in an ISIS attack in the Syrian desert just days after the last ISIS fighters had been evacuated following the regime bombardment of Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus.

“When the (Syrian) regime or the Iraqi government declared that they were able to vanquish ISIS, this is a very inaccurate statement,” military analyst Nawar Oliver at the Turkey-based Omran Institute told AFP.

“You were able to vanquish ISIS in the city — such as Deir ez-Zor, Abu Kamal, Mayadeen, Palmyra — but you were not able to get rid of ISIS in the desert, which is your main problem right now.

“The attacks will continue, launched from the desert, targeting pipelines, main roads, border crossings, which will give any government a huge headache,” he said.

With the United States restricted to positions it holds east of the Euphrates and the Assad regime reportedly struggling to muster the manpower for a single operation against Daraa in south-western Syria, ISIS’s freedom to strike in the vast tracts of Syria’s desert appears unchallenged.