Islamic State strikes from the shadows in vulnerable Syria and Iraq

BEIRUT — With a spectacular prison break in Syria and a deadly attack on an army barracks in Iraq, the Islamic State group made headlines last week, a reminder of a war that officially ended there. three years ago but which continues to take place mostly out of sight.

The attacks were among the boldest since the extremist group lost its last slice of territory in 2019 with the help of a US-led international coalition, following a years-long war that has left much of Iraq and Syria in ruins.

Residents of both countries say recent high-profile IS operations have only confirmed what they have known and feared for months: economic collapse, lack of governance and growing ethnic tensions in the region. impoverished reverse ISIS’s gains, allowing the group to threaten part of its former so-called caliphate.

A Syrian man said that over the past few years militants have repeatedly carried out attacks in his town of Shuheil, a former IS stronghold in eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour province . They beat members of the Kurdish-led security forces or local administration – then disappeared.

“We would think it’s over and they’re not coming back. Then suddenly everything flips upside down again,” he said.

They are “everywhere”, he said, striking quickly and mostly in the dark, creating the aura of ubiquitous stealth force. He spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.

ISIS lost its last chunk of territory near Baghouz in eastern Syria in March 2019. Since then it has largely gone underground and carried out low-level insurgency, including attacks roadside bombings, assassinations and hit-and-run attacks mainly targeting security forces. In eastern Syria, militants have carried out some 342 operations over the past year, including numerous attacks against Kurdish-led forces, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. United.

The January 20 prison break in Syria’s Hassakeh region was his most sophisticated operation to date.

Militants stormed the prison in a bid to evacuate thousands of comrades, some of whom simultaneously rioted inside. The attackers allowed some detainees to escape, took hostages, including detained children, and fought the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for a week. It is not known how many activists managed to escape, and some remain locked up in the prison.

The fighting killed dozens and drew in the US-led coalition, which carried out airstrikes and deployed US personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the scene. The battle also drove thousands of neighboring civilians from their homes.

It recalls a series of prison breaks that fueled the rise of ISIS more than eight years ago, when they overwhelmed territory in Iraq and Syria.

Hours after the prison attack began, IS gunmen in Iraq broke into a barracks in the mountains north of Baghdad, killed a guard and shot dead 11 soldiers as they slept . It was part of a recent upsurge in attacks that fueled fears the group was also gaining momentum in Iraq.

An Iraqi intelligence source said IS no longer had the same funding sources as in the past and was unable to hold on. “They work as a very decentralized organization,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss security information.

The group’s largest operations are carried out by 7 to 10 militants, Iraqi army spokesman Major General Yehia Rasool said. He said he believed it was currently impossible for IS to take over a village, let alone a town. In the summer of 2014, Iraqi forces collapsed and retreated as militants overran large swathes of northern Iraq.

On its online channel, Aamaq, IS broadcasts videos of the prison attack and glorifies its other operations in an intensified propaganda campaign. The aim is to recruit new members and “reactivate quasi-dormant networks across the region”, according to an analysis by security consultancy Soufan Group.

On both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, IS is profiting from ethnic and sectarian resentments and deteriorating economies. In Iraq, the rivalry between the Baghdad-based central government and the Kurdish autonomous region in the north of the country has opened cracks through which IS has crept in again. Sunni Arab disenchantment with Shia politicians helps the group attract young men.

In Afghanistan, IS militants have stepped up their attacks against the country’s new rulers, the Taliban, as well as religious and ethnic minorities.

In eastern Syria, tensions are between the Kurdish-led administration and the Arab population. IS feeds on Arab discontent with Kurdish domination of power and jobs at a time when Syria’s currency is collapsing.

Kurdish authorities have cracked down on the Arab population suspected of sympathizing with IS, especially after a wave of protests over living conditions. At the same time, to reduce tensions, Kurdish authorities released detained Arabs and encouraged Arab tribesmen to join the ranks of the SDF. But the moves have raised concerns about infiltration or corruption charges, adding to the challenges.

The militants have cells stretching from Baghouz in the east to the Manbij countryside in Aleppo province in the west, according to Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory.

“They are trying to reaffirm their presence,” he said.

Eastern Syria is also fractured between several competing forces. The Kurdish-led administration runs most of the territory east of the Euphrates, supported by hundreds of US soldiers. The Syrian government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, is west of the river. Turkey and its allied Syrian fighters, who view the Kurds as existential enemies, hold a belt along the countries border.

Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the SDF’s reliance on an “unpredictable American presence” in the fight against militants is one of its biggest challenges.

She said the SDF is seen as a lame duck that makes local residents reluctant to cooperate with anti-ISIS raids or provide intelligence on ISIS cells, especially after the group threatens or kills people. many alleged collaborators in the past.

Additionally, the Kurdish authorities’ claim to be able to govern and provide services to the region and its mixed population “took a hit in 2021 with deteriorating economic conditions in the region”, Khalifa said.

Residents say the Islamic State group does not collect taxes or actively recruit people, indicating that they are not seeking to take over and control territory as they did in 2014, when they became the de facto rulers of an area that spanned almost a third of Syria. and Iraq. Instead, they exploit the security vacuum and lack of governance and resort to intimidation and kidnappings.

The Shuheil resident in Deir el-Zour said they mainly operate at night, in blitzkrieg attacks on military posts or targeted killings carried out from high-speed motorbikes.

“It’s still a hit-and-run,” he said.

He described the area as constantly on edge, under the invisible threat of activists blending in with the population. The fear is so great that no one speaks openly about them, whether they are good or bad, he said.

“Everyone is afraid of assassinations,” he said. “They have prestige, they have a reputation. They will never leave. »

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Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed reporting.

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