Has Turkey’s Incursion into Syria Opened the Door for an Islamic State Comeback?
“People who travel north through these areas bid their family goodbye, in case they do not return,” said Samir, a lawyer living in Hajjin, south-eastern Syria, referring to areas in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. Worrying dynamics are emerging on the ground in northeast Syria. After losing its last pockets of territory, the self-proclaimed Islamic State shifted its strategy to an increasingly robust insurgency, which by now threatens to undermine security across the area. Its operations have taken the form of targeted attacks, including roadside bombings, hit-and-run assaults, and assassinations by fighters embedded in tribal communities. Locals often tolerate the presence of Islamic State operatives in their midst out of fear of retaliation, local residents told us during our regular visits to the area. The Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella group of Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac militias under the leadership of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that defeated the Islamic State and controls the region, have been unable to fully address this growing problem. Furthermore, their willingness and ability to conduct effective counter-terrorism raids for now depends on a continued American presence, even at reduced levels, and on Turkey refraining from launching renewed offensives on the area.
Turkey’s October incursion into northeast Syria and the partial U.S. withdrawal it prompted caused mass displacement and human suffering along the border and further south. It also raised the threat of an Islamic State resurgence in the area. The Kurdish-led forces are now stretched thin between responding to the latest Turkish incursion in Syria, leading ongoing operations against Islamic State cells, and guarding prisons and camps holding thousands of Islamic State fighters and their relatives. This circumscribed capacity, coupled with a growing sense of the Syrian Democratic Forces as a lame duck, is being exploited by the Islamic State to penetrate local communities and act with growing impunity in the rural regions in eastern Syria.
According to the latest report by the Inspector General of Operation Inherent Resolve, relying on information provided by the U.S. Central Command and the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Turkish incursion did not result in significant increases in Islamic State capabilities. However, our visits to northeast Syria following the Turkish offensive and dozens of interviews we conducted there with Arab and Kurdish officials and local residents reveal that while the Islamic State’s insurgent capabilities remain restricted and no major breakdown in security has occurred, locals report that the terrorist group’s members are now able to move more freely, extort protection money, and operate with impunity in large swaths of Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria. “Daesh [derogatory term for the Islamic State used by locals] can now shoot someone in broad daylight and no one will say a thing,” said Abdul Muin, an activist from Shhayl, a town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor that is experiencing a particularly active Islamic State presence.
The Syrian Democratic Forces’ counter-Islamic State operations have continued despite the Turkish incursion, albeit at a much lower rate. “After the Peace Spring campaign [the Turkish incursion], Islamic State cells increased their activities. The Kurds are busy in the north,” said Hasan, a member of local non-governmental organization in Deir Ezzor. “[The Islamic State] is able to move around more freely.” Interviews across northeast Syria reveal how the Islamic State has maintained a drumbeat of low-level violence across the area, despite being geographically and organizationally fractured. It had worked previously to streamline its internal structures by setting up clear administrative responsibilities and functions, and standard operating procedures, thereby reducing the impact of large territorial defeat or the loss of its leadership. This has allowed its cells to continue to operate without direct orders from its core command. Its fighters have carried out targeted attacks, including roadside bombings, drive-by shootings, and assassinations. The cells are semi-organized, with a known local command, sometimes visible and often embedded in the population, as noted to us by locals and tribal notables in eastern Syria. Syrian Democratic Forces officials and locals point to the role played by youth raised under the Islamic State, some of whom attended training camps for “Cubs of the Caliphate” or are related to jailed or dead Islamic State fighters, in carrying out the attacks.
While attacks claimed by the Islamic State had been declining prior to Turkey storming northeast Syria, with a 46 percent decrease in the number of Islamic State sleeper cell attacks between September and August, the month of November witnessed a 63 percent upswing compared to September. Following the initial months of combat in north-eastern Syria, the number of claimed attacks decreased, stabilizing at an average of a 20 percent rise in the number of claimed attacks since the Turkish incursion. According to U.S. Central Command, these claims were mere propaganda and do not reflect the number of attacks on the ground. However, locals — without access to Islamic State attack claims — report a greater frequency of attacks. Except for a string of car bombs, these attacks are largely unsophisticated, but the group’s ability to target specific individuals evinces a high degree of local knowledge.
More complex attacks claimed by the Islamic State have targeted local Arabs working with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Such attacks aim to weaken the Kurdish-led forces and to terrorise the local population into non-cooperation with them, harming their ability to gather relevant intelligence necessary for effective counter-terrorism measures. With increased Islamic State threats in the aftermath of the Turkish incursion, and a sense of the growing weakness of the Syrian Democratic Forces, local sources in Deir Ezzor say that there has been a spike in the number of people “repenting” (or seeking forgiveness from the Islamic State) for their prior support for the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In September 2019, for example, the Islamic State published a list of around 200 persons in the town of Bu Hardob, east of Deir Ezzor city, who were working for local councils affiliated to the autonomous administration. The following day almost all of these people showed up to the local mosque and “repented” as the Islamic State had demanded, fearing retribution. Similarly, in December 2019, after the Islamic State assassinated over a dozen members of a prominent family in the town of Hawayej Dhiban, east of Deir Ezzor city, the family publicly “repented.” Hassan, the head of a local non-governmental organization, described to us how he had hosted a preacher at a forum in January 2020 to speak against marriage of underage girls in the western countryside of Deir Ezzor, an area experiencing relative stability. The preacher asked that no photos or recordings be made, fearing the Islamic State would harm him for speaking up against a practice common under their rule.
“The entire region hangs by a single tweet by Trump,” said Ahmed, the director of a local non-governmental organization in Deir Ezzor. “The region will remain unstable as long as people believe that the Americans can pull out at any moment.” He explained how the Islamic State exploits this uncertainty: “Tomorrow, if Daesh operatives come to me asking me to welcome them in my home, I will do so. If I don’t, they may take revenge once the Americans pull out and the Syrian Democratic Forces collapse.”
While security conditions in predominantly Kurdish areas, Manbij, and Raqqa largely remain unchanged, the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, an area liberated from the Islamic State only in 2018 and2019, has witnessed the most dramatic deterioration in security following the Turkish incursion. At night, the Islamic State controls the roads, sets up checkpoints, and moves around unfettered; residents of the area only leave their homes in cases of emergency, even delaying needed medical treatment until dawn breaks. Locals avoid taking the road connecting the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside to Hassakeh even during the day. In late November and December, a major breakdown in security occurred in the town of al-Bseira, where the Islamic State’s militants set up checkpoints inside the town two nights in a row, and later entered the town during the day, destroying tobacco and hookah shops, and forcing locals to attend prayer. The atmosphere of terror created by the Islamic State is facilitating their infiltration of the civilian and military institutions of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Deir Ezzor, according to local officials.
A prominent commander with the Deir Ezzor Military Council, which operates under the Syrian Democratic Forces, complained to us that the force is neglected by the Kurdish leadership and U.S. Coalition forces, who do not provide training even of the elite forces of the Military Council. This sense of marginalization, fear of retribution, as well as the perception that decision-making is tightly controlled by Kurdish commanders, reduce the motivation of local fighters and makes it easier for the Islamic State to infiltrate the force, the Arab commander argued. “[The Islamic State] is threatening fighters in the Deir Ezzor Military Council into sitting at home [quitting] or to provide them with information, for example about future raids. The lack of motivation is helping in this regard as well.”
The Islamic State has also been able to achieve greater intelligence penetration of rural communities in eastern Syria. It has stepped up assassinations of alleged and actual collaborators with the intelligence apparatus of the Syrian Democratic Forces; for example, the recent assassinations of drivers from Deir Ezzor who surrendered families of Islamic State members to the Syrian Democratic Forces when they were attempting to smuggle themselves out of the jihadist group’s last territorial enclave in late 2018 and early 2019.
Islamic State cells have also been able to coalesce, set up check points, and extort money from local oil traders crossing through Syria’s eastern desert (badeyah). Shop owners, heads of factories, directors and major suppliers of non-governmental organizations, doctors, landowners, and others who are perceived to be well-off are routinely threatened to pay “zakat” (charity, or taxes) by men claiming to be members of the Islamic State. “The easiest way to do it is under the sword [threat] of Daesh,” said Ahmed, the non-governmental organization director. He and others in the region are convinced that many of the men are simply thieves with no connection to the Islamic State, exploiting the widespread fear of the jihadist group.
Local residents partly attribute the escalation in Islamic State activities to lack of popular confidence in a sustained presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces and American troops in eastern Syria. Playing on the lack of trust between locals and the Syrian Democratic Forces, Islamic State networks enjoy a degree of local protection. The uncertainty regarding the region’s future is being exploited by multiple outside forces. Syrian Democratic Forces officials and civilians in Arab-majority areas held by the Syrian Democratic Forces are reporting an increase in the activities of cells affiliated with the Assad regime, Iranian-backed militias, Turkey, and Russia carrying out sabotage attacks, all seeking to undermine the grip of the Syrian Democratic Forces over the areas they hold.
The Turkish incursion compelled the Syrian Democratic Forces to reach a military arrangement with the Syrian regime to permit the entry of the Syrian Army into certain locations to halt the Turkish offensive. This agreement negatively affected the security situation in Deir Ezzor by bolstering long-held beliefs that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces will surrender areas to the regime. According to local civilians and Syrian Democratic Forces officials in Deir Ezzor, the regime, Russia, and Iran are exploiting this perception to offer so-called reconciliation deals to the population, often through prominent tribal figures. All these forces, in addition to Turkey, are perceived to be recruiting locals to carry out sabotage attacks and increase instability. A prominent Deir Ezzor journalist reported that “a friend of mine was offered to plant a bomb on an oil truck for 2,000 dollars by a commander of a Turkish-backed faction.”
The new status quo in northeast Syria is fragile and could be upended at any time. A series of chaotic and costly decisions by the United States and Turkey has resulted in massive human suffering and has opened the door for an Islamic State resurgence. The Syrian Democratic Forces have largely been able to contain the increased unrest that followed Turkey’s incursion, but the major breakdown in security in Deir Ezzor indicates that its capacity to simultaneously address multiple security concerns is limited. The international community will not be insulated from the consequences of leaving the Syrian Democratic Forces to deal with the enduring Islamic State challenge on its own.
Dareen Khalifa is the Senior Syria Analyst at the International Crisis Group. Follow her on Twitter @Dkhalifa. Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Elizrael.
Image: Turkish Ministry of Defense