Hidden Jihadists in the Levant’s Deserts
BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO - Today, most of the security discourse regarding Daesh is centred on the threat represented by the return of foreign fighters, from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria to Europe, and on preventing the group from re-emerging. Such focus is indeed necessary but should not detract attention from the continued territorial presence of Daesh in the Arab Levant despite that it is more limited than in the past. The progressive disengagement of international forces from ground operations resembles the United States (US) change of focus in 2003 from Afghanistan to Iraq, as the US administration assessed that the Afghan mission was accomplished and that the fight against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda could be continued by local forces. This is certainly an error not to be replicated especially given the current situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
Despite the departure of its foreign fighters, in Iraq Daesh can rely on a solid underground network composed by a considerable number of local jihadi fighters with nowhere to go. And it can rely on cooperation with the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR) composed of former members of the Iraqi army, which was dissolved by the US in 2003. They were crucial in supporting Daesh’s fulminous military victories in 2014. In 2017, the group was forced to retreat from all urban areas, however, Daesh still controls territory in a desert area located in Iraq’s Nineveh province which they use as a logistical base for deadly attacks and incursions in neighbouring areas. A new Daesh-affiliated insurgent group, The White Flags, has risen to prominence in the border areas between the Kirkuk and Saladin Province with the use of very effective guerrilla tactics. By exploiting the current lack of military coordination between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, the White Flags currently represents a formidable new threat to Iraq’s security. If that was not enough, the newly formed government in Baghdad is the result of a compromise agreement between the countries’ Shia factions which are unlikely to prioritise the grievances of Iraq’s marginalised Sunnis.
In Syria, the situation is worryingly similar. The coalition fighting in support of President Bashar Al-Assad (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah), despite recapturing most of the country’s territory, has in several occasions, allowed Daesh’s fighters to safely withdraw with their weapons to other areas of Syria still controlled by the armed group. This policy has enabled Daesh to reinforce its presence in Syria’s desert East of Palmyra where it still controls large portions of territory and to resist the final offensive of the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) along the Euphrates river as testified by the propaganda videos recently released by the jihadi organisation. Since Daesh was expelled from Raqqa and Deir-er-Zor, the two largest cities in Eastern Syria, the support of the US Air Force to the anti-Daesh offensive carried out by the SDF has diminished, rendering the advance of SDF fighters more problematic. The prospect of Al-Assad remaining in power in Damascus is also beneficial to Daesh’s aspirations in the country. A divisive President, member of a Shia minority group, (Alawite), who maintained power thanks to the support of Hezbollah, Iran and by using air power to target civilians in rebel held areas, including with chemical weapons, is the ideal target for Daesh’s propaganda as the group attempts to rally, once again, the support of the 80% Sunni population of Syria.
Despite the importance of focusing against the future of the Daesh threat it would be counterproductive to do so by withdrawing resources from the current fight against the group in the Middle East. Daesh is certainly weaker than it was in 2014/2015, however, there is little doubt it will re-emerge if the political situation in Syria and Iraq favours it and if Daesh is left with its current strongholds inside those countries.
This article is part of a series of publications related to our upcoming event "Once and For All! Strategies to End the Scourge of Isis", that will be held on 02 November 2018, in Prague.
A special EGIC collection of articles and analyses will be distributed during the event.
Click on the link below to sign up to the event and find out more about it.