Down but not out: The Islamic State waits for an opportunity to resurge
Though no longer in control of territory, the Islamic State (IS) continues to exploit dire conditions in Iraq and Syria to wage an insurgency and rebuild.
Recent developments in Syria’s civil war and political turmoil in Iraq threaten to disrupt counter-terror operations crucial to ensuring that IS remains defeated and does not retake territory.
“The underlying drivers for an ISIL resurgence exist in both countries,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, a counter-terrorism expert and former British diplomat, told The New Arab, using an alternate acronym for IS.
In Syria, officials and experts say that IS is benefitting from renewed tensions between Turkey and its rebel partners and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose Kurdish core is accused by Ankara of being terrorists.
"Though no longer holding territory, IS still poses a significant threat to the region, officials and experts say"
After years of combatting IS, the SDF finds itself stretched thin, unable to maintain the same degree of counter-terror operations as it directs efforts and resources toward responding to Turkish threats.
Since 2018, Turkey has launched two operations against its Kurdish foes. In May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to launch a third assault.
“In the last three months since Turkey began its threats, the ability for us to defeat or control sleeper cells and defeat their plans decreased from 100 percent to 50 percent,” SDF Spokesperson Siamand Ali said during an interview in August. The SDF, he added, has had to redirect attention and resources to respond to increased Turkish attacks.
“This priority weakened our other priority to defeat ISIS,” Ali continued.
While the SDF has proven itself to be a pivotal partner in the US-led Global Coalition against IS, which includes the UK and 81 other countries, Turkey accuses its Kurdish base, the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey in a bid to garner greater rights for Kurds and is labelled as a terrorist organisation by the US, UK, EU, and Turkey.
Washington has repeatedly pushed back against Erdogan’s plans for another invasion, with US and Kurdish officials warning that it would undermine counter-terror operations and embolden IS.
Officials and experts say that a Turkish invasion would force the SDF to redirect focus toward Turkey, whose last invasion in 2019 sparked questions about whether the SDF would collapse as it lost some of the territory that it controls in northeast Syria.
“The last Turkish incursion in 2019 came at a grave cost for the SDF both materially and politically, a new round of violence would be detrimental for them,” Dareen Khalifa, Senior Syria Analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.
In Iraq, recent violence provoked by the failure to form a government has raised concerns that the country could descend into another civil war. While tensions have calmed, the underlying issues remain as various political blocs continue negotiations on government formation.
Further instability or conflict would likely impact counter-terror operations in Iraq as well, where 2,500 US troops remain to assist and train Iraqi military forces.
Though no longer holding territory, IS still poses a significant threat to the region, officials and experts say. In addition to Turkish-Kurdish tensions, IS has exploited fighting between other parties in Syria, porous borders, local grievances, and poor economic, governance, and humanitarian conditions to rebuild, maintain support, and continue its insurgency.
"We're going to continue to see this low-level insurgency waiting for the time or for the vacuum that would allow them to resurge"
The clearest example of IS’ present capabilities came in January when it launched an attack on a prison holding up to 5,000 IS-linked prisoners in the SDF-controlled city of Hasaka. Hundreds of prisoners are believed to have escaped, and hundreds of combatants were reportedly killed in the ensuing two weeks of fighting.
More recently, the SDF carried out raids against IS sleeper cells in al-Hol, a massive displacement camp plagued by security and humanitarian issues that houses some 60,000 people, most of them women and children. Many are the families of IS fighters or sympathetic to the group.
The nearly month-long operation resulted in the arrest of at least 226 individuals, the discovery of 25 tunnels used for smuggling and hiding weapons and personnel, and the seizure of firearms and explosive materials.
Al-Hol offers a close look at the broader conditions that enable IS to persist and which could enable its resurgence.
“Al-Hol is a huge security vulnerability,” said Khalifa. “I don't think this particular operation, despite how significant it is, is going to resolve that. It's a breeding ground. It's something that needs to be addressed structurally. You can't just conduct raids and arrest people, because people and goods continue to be smuggled in and out all the time.”
US forces did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but in a statement on 18 September following the SDF operation, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, General Michael Kurilla, called for more to be done to repatriate the tens of thousands of foreign nationals residing in the camp. Days earlier, he had asserted that “there is no military solution to the threat" posed by the al-Hol camp.
"IS preys on the weak and disenfranchised and is trying to exploit the conditions in the camp to help regenerate its forces," said Kurilla. “The situation in al-Hol is an international crisis that requires an international solution, and the only permanent solution is the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of camp residents."
Roughly 30,000 of the camp residents are Iraqis. While Baghdad has taken steps to return its citizens, domestic issues limit its capabilities. Western countries remain more capable but reluctant to repatriate their citizens for complex logistical and legal reasons.
The SDF has taken steps to address Syrian nationals residing in the camp, including by launching deradicalisation centres, but its resources are limited.
Ali stated that the closure of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing in 2020 following Chinese and Russian vetoes at the UN Security Council decreased the amount of humanitarian aid reaching northeast Syria, limiting local officials’ ability to provide support for displaced people and camps.
Coupled with Turkish pressure and overseeing some 12,000 alleged IS prisoners, Ali continued, SDF and local officials are stretched thin.
"IS preys on the weak and disenfranchised and is trying to exploit the conditions in the [al-Hol] camp to help regenerate its forces"
Despite such pressure, Fitton-Brown said an IS resurgence does not appear likely in the near term, but it could occur in the long term.
“If you sustain the current level of counterterrorism pressure, then ISIL will not be able to resurge in either Syria or Iraq,” he said. “But the question is, can you maintain that level of counterterrorism pressure?”
Khalifa noted that the US presence in Syria is pivotal for keeping IS down, but that Washington may eventually withdraw. Groups like IS know this and consider it in their strategic planning.
“As long as the coalition is there… it's highly unlikely that we're going to see massive territorial control,” she said. “We're going to continue to see this low-level insurgency waiting for the time or for the vacuum that would allow them to resurge.”
Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He has reported on the Middle East and East Asia for WhoWhatWhy, Inkstick Media, and Task & Purpose.