Islamic State strikes from shadows in vulnerable Syria, Iraq

BEIRUT — With a spectacular jail break in Syria and a deadly attack on an army barracks in Iraq, the Islamic State group was back in the headlines the past week, a reminder of a war that formally ended three years ago but continues to be fought mostly away from view.

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

Residents in both countries say the recent high-profile IS operations only confirmed what they’ve known and feared for months: Economic collapse, lack of governance and growing ethnic tensions in the impoverished region are reversing counter-IS gains, allowing the group to threaten parts of its former so-called caliphate once again.

One Syrian man said that over the past few years, militants repeatedly carried out attacks in his town of Shuheil, a former IS stronghold in eastern Syria’s Deir el-Zour province. The militants attacked members of either the Kurdish-led security forces or local administration, and then they vanished.

“We would think it is over and they’re not coming back. He said, “Then everything suddenly turns upside-down again.”

They are “everywhere,” he said, striking quickly and mostly in the dark, creating the aura of a stealth omnipresent force. Out of concern for his safety, he spoke under anonymity.

IS lost its last patch of territory near Baghouz in eastern Syria in March 2019. It mainly went underground since then and waged an insurgency at a low level, which included roadside bombings and assassinations, mostly against security forces. In eastern Syria, the militants carried out some 342 operations over the last year, many of them attacks on Kurdish-led forces, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Jan. 20 prison break in Syria’s Hassakeh region was its most sophisticated operation yet.

The militants stormed the prison aiming to break out thousands of comrades, some of whom simultaneously rioted inside. The attackers allowed some inmates to escape, took hostages, including child detainees, and battled the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for a week. The prison remains a place of refuge for some militants, though it was unclear how many managed to flee.

The fighting killed dozens and drew in the U.S.-led coalition, which carried out airstrikes and deployed American personnel in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the scene. The fighting also forced thousands of civilians living nearby to flee their homes.

It harkened back to a series of jail breaks that fueled IS’s surge 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 mountains north of Baghdad, killed a guard and shot dead 11 soldiers as they slept. This attack was one of many recent attacks which have raised fears that the group may also be growing in Iraq.

An Iraqi intelligence source said IS does not have the same sources of financing as in the past and is incapable of holding ground. The official spoke under anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose security information. He said that IS is working as a highly decentralized organisation.

The group’s biggest operations are conducted by 7-10 militants, said Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Yehia Rasool. According to him, it’s currently not possible for IS militants to seize a village or even a whole city. In the summer of 2014, Iraqi forces collapsed and retreated when the militants overran vast swathes of northern Iraq.

On its online channel, Aamaq, IS has been putting out videos from the prison attack and glorifying its other operations in an intensified propaganda campaign. According to a security consultant, the Soufan Group analysis found that the goal is to “reactivate non-existent networks in the region” and recruit new members.

On both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, IS benefits from ethnic and sectarian resentments and from deteriorating economies. In Iraq, the rivalry between the Baghdad-based central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north of the country has opened up cracks through which IS has crept back. Sunni Arabs are attracted to Shiite politicians by their disenchantment.

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

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

Kurdish authorities have carried out crackdowns against the Arab population on suspicion of IS sympathies, especially after a wave of protests against living conditions. To reduce tensions, Kurdish authorities also released Arabs detained and encouraged Arab tribal members to join the SDF ranks. These steps raised questions about corruption or infiltration, which has added to the difficulties.

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

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

East Syria is also fractured among several competing forces. Supported by thousands of U.S. soldiers, the Kurdish-led government controls most of east Syria’s territory. West of the river is the Syrian government with its Russian- and Iranian allies. Turkey and its allies in Syria, which view Kurds to be existential enemies of the state, have a border belt.

Dareen Khalifa, a senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the SDF’s dependence on an “unpredictable U.S. presence” in fighting the militants is one of its biggest challenges.

She said the SDF is viewed as a lame duck that makes local residents reluctant to cooperate with anti-IS raids or provide intelligence on IS cells, particularly after the group threatened or killed many suspected collaborators in the past.

Moreover, the Kurdish authorities’ claim to be able to govern and provide services to the region and its mixed population “has taken a blow in 2021 as the economic conditions in the area deteriorated,” Khalifa said.

Residents say the Islamic State group is not collecting taxes or actively recruiting people, indicating they are not seeking to seize and control territory like they did in 2014, when they became de-facto rulers of an area that stretched across nearly a third of both Syria and Iraq. They use intimidation, kidnapping, and security vacuum to exploit the lack of governance.

The resident of Shuheil in Deir el-Zour said they mostly operate at night, in flash attacks on military posts or targeted killings carried out from speeding motorcycles.

“It is always hit and run,” he said.

He described the area as constantly on edge, under an invisible threat from militants who blend into the population. He said that the fear was so strong, nobody talks about it, good or not.

“Everyone is afraid of assassinations,” he said. They have reputation, prestige. They will never go away.”

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

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