Islamic State fighters operating in the Lower Euphrates river valley this week killed 68 fighters of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces. Under cover of a sandstorm that severely reduced visibility, the Sunni jihadis of IS launched a wave of suicide bombings against SDF positions. The Coalition rushed 500 fighters from the Kurdish YPG to the area (the SDF in the area consisted mainly of Arab fighters from the Deir a Zur Military Council). Intense Coalition air and artillery strikes followed. For now, the situation has returned to an uneasy stability. The SDF and coalition offensive against the last significant IS-controlled pocket of territory around the town of Hajin continues.
It would be mistaken to see the latest Hajin incidents as merely the last stand of a few IS bitter-enders, a final if gory footnote in the often-horrifying trajectory of the Caliphate declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul on June 29, 2014. Rather, the evidence shows that IS doesn’t care for last stands under which a line can be drawn. It had the opportunities for such gestures in its main urban conquests of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. It avoided them – leaving a core of fighters to carry out the last battles, while key leaders and cadres escaped to reorganize for the next chapter.
The Hajin incidents should rather be seen as reflective of a larger reality: namely, that the Islamic State organization has not been destroyed. Reports of its demise have been much exaggerated. It is currently in a process of reorganization and regrouping. And it may well recommence major operations in the not too distant future.
This process is itself part of a broad strategic picture. Two large and inter-related Sunni Arab insurgencies have arisen in the Levant and Iraq in the last decade – these are the ‘Syrian rebellion’ and the Caliphate of the Islamic State. Both have, in conventional terms, been defeated. The Syrian Sunni Arab rebel groups remain in existence only in a part of north west Syria, and only because of the protection of Turkey.
The Caliphate, meanwhile, consists today only of the Hajin pocket and a few other isolated desert enclaves.
But the defeat of these armed campaigns has not resolved the issues that caused them to come into existence. A very large, discontented and disenfranchised Sunni Arab population remains in the area of Syria and Iraq. Its needs, to put it mildly, are not set to be addressed by either the Alawi-dominated Assad dictatorship in Damascus, or the Shia-led and Iran inclining Iraqi government in Baghdad. The language which can mobilise this population, meanwhile, as the events of recent years confirm, is Sunni political Islam.
All this creates a ripe atmosphere for ISIS 2.0 to grow – on condition that the organization can extricate from the ruins of the Caliphate something resembling a coherent organizational structure for the rebuilding of an insurgent network. The evidence suggest that IS has achieved this. It is therefore now regenerating itself.
What form is this taking? A recent report by the Institute for the Study of War entitled ‘ISIS’ Second Resurgence’ quotes a US State Department estimate of August 2018 which puts the number of fighters currently available to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at 30,000. These fighters, the report suggests, are evenly divided between Iraq and Syria.
ISW notes that the Islamic State infrastructure does not lack for funding, the organization having smuggled $400 million out of Iraq, where it has been invested in businesses across the region. IS also engages in kidnapping, extortion and drug smuggling within the area of Syria and Iraq itself.
Embedded deep in the Sunni Arab communities from which it draws its strength, IS maintains networks of support and de facto control in a number of areas identified by the report. These include the Hamrin Mountains in Diyala Province, the Hawija area, eastern Salah al-Din Province, the area south of Mosul city and Daquq.
Local government officials also in the Sinjar area have reported sharp increases in IS activities in the area to the south of Sinjar and in the Ninawah plains in the recent period.
In all these areas, IS relies on the fear of the local populace, their lack of trust in the Shia-dominated, often sectarian-minded Iraqi security forces, and in turn the unwillingness of those security forces to make a real effort to root out the IS presence. To do so would require determined and risky deployments of a type which the security forces lack the determination or motivation to undertake.
Sheikh Ali Nawfil al-Hassan of the Al-Shammar Beduin tribe which has lands in eastern Syria and western Iraq, recently said in an interview with the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis (MECRA) that ‘in these areas ISIS is coming and going as they want freely. They move about as they wish.’
There is an additional problem in that the US-led coalition is reluctant to share information with some elements of the Iraqi security forces, because of their closeness to the IRGC and Iran.
In Syria, meanwhile, IS maintains a presence in the desert east of Damascus, from which it can launch attacks. Less visibly, the organization is engaged in efforts to reorganize sleeper cells among the Sunni Arab communities that once lived under its rule across Syria – as was confirmed to this author in a recent conversation with senior security officials in the city of Raqqa.
The security of the porous border between the two countries also remains a major issue – with IS fighters able to utilize the erratic efforts of the Iraqi security forces to avoid the coalition war effort in eastern Syria by slipping across the border to Iraq’s Anbar Province, and the sympathetic Sunni communities there.
So IS as an organization has survived the successful US-led destruction of the quasi-state it created in 2014. It has a leadership structure, money, fighters, weaponry and it is currently constructing a network of support in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. These areas take in territory under the nominal control of the government of Iraq, the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime. Small scale attacks have already begun in some areas. The return of the Islamic State in the dimensions it reached in the summer of 2014 does not look likely or imminent. But an IS-led ongoing Sunni insurgency, with roots deep in the Sunni Arab outlying areas of Syria, Iraq and the border between them is an increasingly likely prospect. The Caliphate may be in ruins. But Islamic State is back.
Jonathan Spyer is a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Strategic Studies, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.