What's driving an Islamic State insurgency in Iraq and Syria?
Islamic State (IS) militants have recently increased their attacks on Iraqi security forces and civilians causing dozens of victims, highlighting the threat the group still poses to stability in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
IS dominated large swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, declaring a "caliphate" before Baghdad, backed by an international coalition, fought the organisation and declared victory in late 2017.
The group, however, has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks against Iraqi security forces and civilians in December.
The extremists used roadside bombs and hit-and-run tactics, particularly in rural areas north of Baghdad, areas around the city of Kirkuk, and in the eastern provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin.
"There remain gaps in security due to ongoing political disagreements between federal Iraq and the KRG"
At least three Iraqi officers were killed and three other soldiers wounded on 14 December when a roadside bomb detonated as an Iraqi army convoy patrolled the Tarmiya area north of the capital city of Baghdad.
Five days later, another roadside bomb killed nine Iraqi police in Kirkuk – a disputed area between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil.
Meanwhile, eight Iraqi civilians were killed after IS militants attacked a village in eastern Diyala province on 20 December. Days later, two other Iraqi soldiers were killed and three were wounded in an explosion in the Makhmour district of Nineveh - another disputed area between Baghdad and Erbil.
The oil-rich city of Kirkuk and its districts, some areas of Diyala, and the Nineveh provinces are considered contested areas between the Iraqi federal government and the KRG. Article 140 of the Iraqi permanent constitution outlined measures in which those areas could remain as part of Iraq or join the KRG. But implementation has been stalled since 2007.
"The lack of coordination among the different segments of the Iraqi armed forces [including the KRG peshmerga forces] and the existence of several military commands are the key factors behind the recent attacks," Karim Shukur, a Kurdish lawmaker and member of the security and defence committee in the Iraqi parliament, told The New Arab in December.
The Iraqi security forces include the regular army, anti-terrorism forces, federal police, local police and security agencies, border guards, the Iran-backed Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), and the Kurdish peshmerga forces.
According to the Iraqi constitution, Iraq’s prime minister is the general commander of all armed forces across the country. However, some segments of the PMF take orders from their political leaders, who are very close to Iran. The peshmerga forces also take commands from the KRG and its two main Kurdish ruling parties.
Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East security program at the Centre for a New American Security, outlined the key factors behind the recent IS resurgence in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS attacks are highly opportunistic. If ISIS has the capability and the opportunity, they will strike, particularly if there are chances to demonstrate strength against the Iraqi Security forces, as it also supports their narrative that the Iraqi state is weak,” Lord told TNA.
“There remain gaps in security due to ongoing political disagreements between federal Iraq and the KRG. Disputes over areas sensitive to Article 140 issues often suffer from incomplete or the inconstant presence of security forces, and this gives ISIS a haven. They have also based themselves in difficult terrain, like the Makhoul Mountains, making operations against them treacherous.”
"ISIS attacks are highly opportunistic. If ISIS has the capability and the opportunity, they will strike"
IS militants in northern Syria launched a failed attack on 27 December targeting a prison holding fellow jihadists in Raqqa, the group's former de facto capital in Syria, which killed six Kurdish fighters from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
An “army” of nearly 30,000 IS fighters could rejoin the militant group if they were able to escape from prison facilities, CENTCOM, the US military command responsible for the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia, said in a statement at the end of December.
The United States and its allies killed nearly 700 suspected IS members in Syria and Iraq in 2022, and detained a further 374 in both countries, the statement added.
Answering a question on whether he thinks that IS is being used by Iran and Turkey as a proxy for political gains in Iraq and Syria, Lord responded, “No, ISIS is not a proxy of Turkey or Syria, but ongoing conflict in Syria creates opportunities for ISIS to take advantage from insecure or ungoverned terrains, and to target a new generation of vulnerable youth for radicalisation.”
He added: “Whenever Turkey targets the SDF, it redirects them from their mission against ISIS. We should be very concerned about ISIS' access to thousands of young people in Al Hol and other IDP camps.”
Security forces in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan on 21 December announced that Kurdish security forces had arrested 54 IS militants, including Arab and Kurds, in different areas of Sulaymaniyah, Salahuddin, and Diyala provinces following a five-month operation.
Those arrested had been planning to carry out terrorist attacks across the region. Security forces also said that IS had created the ‘Sulaymaniyah Vilayat of IS’ inside the Sulaymaniyah reform prison house.
“The resumption of IS attacks right now might be linked to their past strategy of waiting for intra-Shia fighting. But when that did not happen, IS militants resumed their insurgency merely to tell the people, the Iraqi state, and the region that they are still an existing threat. However, no strategic change has been made in the military capabilities of IS,” Sardar Aziz, a senior adviser in Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament and researcher and writer on civil-military relations and Middle East politics, told TNA.
"IS militants resumed their insurgency merely to tell the people, the Iraqi state, and the region that they are still an existing threat"
“Several factors helped IS in increasing their attacks. Especially in the disputed areas of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, where the topography of the areas - including many hills, caves, and valleys - enables the militants to easily hide and launch assaults,” he added.
“Some local loyalists provide information about the movements of the ISF [Iraqi Security Forces] to the IS militants, and the existence of vast security gaps as well as different Iraqi forces all are in the favour of the radicals.”
Dana Taib Menmy is The New Arab's Iraq Correspondent, writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities.
Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy