Killings show ISIS remains a threat in Syria's desert 5 years after losing its caliphate

Killings show ISIS remains a threat in Syria's desert 5 years after losing its caliphate
  • ISIS staged attacks that killed scores of Syrian government soldiers in June.

  • The ISIS attacks are a sign of the weakness of the Assad regime and the factions fighting it.

  • "I do not see ISIS making an important comeback in the near future," a Syria expert said.

The Islamic State terror group may have lost its territorial caliphate, once equal in size to the United Kingdom, years ago, but its militants are still killing soldiers and civilians in the Syrian desert.

In two attacks on Wednesday, ISIS militants reportedly killed a total of 19 Syrian government troops in the Homs desert in central Syria, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor. Wednesday's attacks followed another attack on a Syrian army convoy in Homs' eastern countryside, killing five soldiers on Monday.

ISIS killed an estimated 84 Syrian soldiers and 44 civilians in central Syria in March, making it the most violent month in the ISIS desert campaign since late 2017. Another attack on May 3 killed an estimated 15 pro-government fighters. Another four Syrian troops were killed in another desert attack in late April.

Coupled with the latest attacks, 2024 has already seen the deadliest violence perpetrated by ISIS in Syria so far this decade. ISIS lost the territory it declared a decade ago in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019 and it now lacks the fighters and revenue it had then. But it still has enough armed adherents to attack opponents in the splintered Syria civil war in an attempt to recruit more to its cause of holy war.

The attacks aren't a sign of growing ISIS strength, said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

"Over the past several years, ISIS has been able to make regular attacks in the desert," Landis told Business Insider. "In particular, it has had success in killing Syrian soldiers on buses as they travel between Deir ez-Zor and Syria's major western cities."

"All the same, the frequency of its attack has decreased, particularly in Iraq but also in Syria," Landis said. "It has been active in killing Syrians who venture into the desert to hunt for truffles."

The Badia desert in Homs is known for its high-quality truffles that poor Syrians often venture in search of in February-April each year, many of them risking death at the hands of ISIS or the various landmines and explosives strewn across the area. In early March, ISIS murdered 14 civilians collecting truffles in the area.

Landis noted that the Syrian military is picking up its efforts to attack ISIS in the Homs-Palmyra region. He speculates this might be the reason for these latest attacks and subsequent deaths, which he describes as "a sign of the Syrian military's engagement with the problem" rather than of state weakness.

"I do not see ISIS making an important comeback in the near future," Landis said. "ISIS is a product of state weakness and the strength of opposition forces more generally."

While President Bashar al-Assad's government remains weak compared to before the civil war began in 2011, the opposition is also much weaker than at any time since then.

"The comparative advantage of the Syrian military is growing stronger every year," Landis said.

The ISIS attacks are one of many crises in Syria and are a sign of the weakness of the regime and the factions fighting it, another Syria expert said.

"The group's ability to recover depends on how the conflict evolves and on future choices by other actors, including foreign governments," Aron Lund, a fellow with Century International, told BI. "Even if it's killing more people, the Islamic State is still a very minor threat compared to what it used to be. They don't hold significant territory, they have no meaningful population centers under their control, and they keep losing top leadership figures."

Aside from a "weak and disjointed opposition," Lund noted ISIS remnants are fighting the Assad government and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces while "playing cat and mouse" with rebels backed by Turkey elsewhere.

For ISIS, increasing the level of violence is important as it creates both "a perception of threat and momentum," Lund explained, which can influence local populations while simultaneously maintaining the morale of its foot soldiers.

"All-out religious war is their raison d'être, after all," Lund said.

Syria is still riven by internal tensions ISIS would love to exploit, and their hand could be strengthened if the US follows through on a complete troop withdrawal from northeast Syria. That could give them an opportunity to reorganize against a weaker Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces administration, especially since thousands of ISIS militants remain in SDF-run prisons and detention centers, where they're often being held indefinitely. ISIS already attempted a well-planned, coordinated prison break in northeast Syria's Hasakah in January 2022, which took the SDF, with US support, almost two weeks to suppress.

Professor Landis noted what's left of the opposition forces receive little foreign funding compared to the height of the Syrian war in the 2010s, and any remaining funding they can get isn't "at a level" to undermine the Syrian military.

"The intent of Western governments in extending sanctions on Syria is to prevent the Syrian military and state from rebuilding," Landis said. "All the same, the Arab governments have normalized relations with Damascus, which will help it to rebuild its forces and better police the desert."

While the Syrian military does carry out combing operations in the Homs desert, ISIS remnants are far from Damascus's top priority.

"The Syrian government seems more focused on the Turkey-backed rebels and on the SDF, but that's just common sense from Damascus's point of view," Lund said. "These groups are a much bigger political problem, and they represent a bigger potential threat to Assad's rule, even if there's currently little fighting along those frontlines."

The Century fellow believes ISIS remains a "serious nuisance" that will continually prove difficult to eradicate but only has "limited current power" and future potential. Even if the group does manage to pose a "serious menace again," regional and international powers will likely intervene.

"All things considered, I would not expect Damascus to prioritize a terrorist-listed rural insurgency over these other two hostile actors, both of which govern large chunks of territory in a state-like fashion and enjoy significant foreign support," Lund said.

"That doesn't mean the Islamic State is an insignificant problem for Assad, but let's keep things in perspective."

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