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ISIS Returns Through the Syrian Desert

  • Kalam Admin

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

Men and women gathered in front of the regime forces’ centre in the village of Albu Hamad in the eastern Raqqa countryside after receiving news that a group of local residents had been kidnapped by members of ISIS.

More than 60 civilians from the town of Ma’adan and the village of Albu Hamad had been on their way to gather truffles in the southern desert of the eastern Raqqa countryside when they were attacked by a car belonging to ISIS. The group arrested the men and left the women.

Ahmed, a survivor of the kidnapping, appeared shocked by the horror of the incident. Residents circled around him to find out what had happened to their kidnapped relatives. His focus was broken by the commotion, and he was silent for a moment, and then he said: ‘They killed Ibn al-Wahish in front of me, along with Ghazal al-Hubeitar and Ibn al-Habl.’

As soon as Ahmed uttered Ghazal al-Hubeitar’s name, screams rose from a woman in her fifties likely to be the murdered young man’s mother: ‘Oh my child!

ISIS attacks truffle hunters

Since the start of 2019, the deserts of southern Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor provinces have witnessed a major increase in kidnappings of civilians and military as they go to look for truffles.

In the Syrian desert, the rainy season this year has contributed to the availability of truffles – a type of mushroom which grows in the deserts after the rainy season and fetches high prices.

Unemployment and lack of jobs, as well as the fact that they are a good source of food, have pushed residents to search for truffles and to sell them at the markets to secure some income. Others have looked for them as a form of entertainment, to escape the bitter reality the region is experiencing.

Trips to search for truffles have become complicated and dangerous, however, as those looking for them have fallen into the snares of ISIS fighters who are deployed in the desert west of the Euphrates River.

In February and March, the group kidnapped more than 100 people from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, most of them civilians, but also including 20 members of regime forces and the National Defense Forces, who were taken from the Fayda ibn Muwayna area south of the city of al-Mayadin.

The organization summarily executed some abductees, particularly members of regime forces, while the fate of other captives is still unknown.

Lairs in the desert

ISIS has taken the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor deserts as places to hide since the end of 2017, after regime forces took control of areas west of the Euphrates in the two provinces.

The group’s dens are concentrated primarily in three areas deep in the desert: first, in Jebel Bishri in the most southeastern part of Raqqa; second, in the al-Dfeinah area in southwest Deir ez-Zor; and third in the desert area between Palmyra and al-Sukhna to the west, Zone 55 to the south, the T2 station to the east, and the Fayda ibn Muwayna area to the north.

These areas are characterized by terrain conducive to hiding, such as mountains, valleys and very deep natural limestone caves, in addition to the vast size of the region and the daily dust storms which obscure aerial vision and quickly remove traces of movements.

The organization moves at night with total freedom in groups and patrols hoisting its banners, and transports ammunition and supplies in four-wheel vehicles purchased between 2014 and 2017. In daylight, ISIS members move when they need to, pretending to be regime members or civilian desert residents.

Where did they come from?

The organization’s members in these desert pockets enjoy the skills and ability to acclimate with harsh desert conditions. Their nucleus was known as the ‘Desert Sector’, who were mostly residents of the desert areas on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Their numbers have been increased daily by fighters fleeing from other areas, such as the groups which withdrew from the Syrian-Lebanese border and from the environs of Damascus after the evacuation deals agreed with the Hezbollah militia and the Russians throughout the last months of 2017.

ISIS fighters in the desert pockets of eastern Syria number about 1,000, in addition to more than 800 deployed in the eastern Suweida desert.

The number of the organization’s fighters in the desert is increasing sharply after the group’s defeat east of the Euphrates at the hands of the international coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces. They have been joined by others coming from Iraq and former ISIS-held areas in Syria. The region presents an opportunity for the group to catch its breath in anticipation of the next stage.

Baghdadi’s haven

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who managed to flee from the areas east of the Euphrates in mid-2018 after it was blockaded by the Syrian Democratic Forces, has moved periodically between the Anbar desert and the Syrian desert, where he is paying particular attention given the group’s previous experiences there.

ISIS had reorganized and recomposed itself in desert enclaves and pockets in Iraq after the Sunni Awakening defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago. It appears that its current leaders know that they are in the midst of a new desert phase, and so they prepared in advance, along with a security plan for secret underground organizational activity, or in what has today become known as the organization’s ‘safe provinces’.

Iraqi security sources have confirmed that Baghdadi is mainly located in the Anbar desert, along with groups of commanders and fighters. The sources added that the group’s aim at this stage is to gather its members and try to get them into cities to begin a new stage of security actions targeting its opponents.

The regime fails to provide protection

Syrian regime forces and their allies are trying to carry out military operations in the Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor deserts to clear them of ISIS fighters.

The regime forces’ campaigns are assisted by the National Defense Forces and the Popular Mobilization militias, which want to secure their positions in Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, which has been attacked repeatedly by ISIS members over the past few days.

Ahmed from western Deir ez-Zor said, ‘Regime forces have given residents three days to leave the desert so that they can begin a military operation targeting the organization’s positions.’

Ahmed said, ‘Military equipment has reached the 137th Brigade west of Deir ez-Zor and both al-Mayadin and Albu Kamal to the east in preparation for the military operation.’

All the regime’s attempts to eliminate the group have so far failed for a variety of reasons. The first of these is a lack of coordination between regime forces and allied militias in their anti-ISIS operations. Each side is working only to secure its own zone of influence. The second reason is the lack of participation by Russian forces in the military operations and the lack of air cover for the attacking forces, for unknown reasons.

The third reason is that the ISIS dens are located in vast desert areas and the regime is unable to provide enough manpower to cover them.

The fourth reason is that the organization is able to maneuver and avoid attacks by moving continuously in the desert.

‘Abu Turab tells you … we are coming back’

On Friday 1 March, ISIS fighters kidnapped five people from the village of Ayash west of Deir ez-Zor. Four of them were civilians. The fifth belonged to the National Defense militia, and was killed immediately by crushing his head between two rocks.

The group transported the others to a base in a cave deep in the al-Dfeinah area, and after interrogating them, an ISIS commander known for his brutality selected one of the prisoners and freed him to send a short message to the residents of the area, which had been under the group’s control for four years. The message, put simply, said: ‘Abu Turab tells you… we are coming back, and we will have revenge on you all.’

Reasons for the return and its obstacles

The extremist group’s return is a very likely possibility, even if it is not with the same strength it displayed in 2014. This is especially true given that the factors feeding its return are still present in Syria. These include sectarian divisions, the violent practices of the ruling authorities and the absence of a reconciliation law or a solution to end the civil conflict. This is in addition to the economic and living situation and the absence of basic services, which could push people who do not believe in the ideology of this group to work with them in order to provide for their children.

However, the substantive reasons for the group’s return face many obstacles, which the organization will have to confront. These include the size of the areas the group has lost since 2015, which will make it difficult to return with ease.

The capabilities of Syrian forces to confront these dispersed groups has also developed. Roads connecting the organization’s pockets with Turkey have been cut off, and there has been an international campaign to pressure Ankara to restrict the jihadis’ crossings into Iraq and Syria. Revenues have also decreased since ISIS lost control over oil-producing areas in northern and eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Meanwhile residents in the areas where the organization is active are growing closer to the regime – especially since those areas only contain the portion that support the regime, after regime opponents were cleared from them and blocked from returning.

Varied reactions to the group’s return

In regime-controlled areas in the northeast there are two views. The first completely rejects ISIS’s return because of the bloody experience the region suffered at its hands. The supporters of this view include both regime and opposition supporters. The reason that the regime’s opponents are aligned with this view is due to the fact that they blame the extremist groups for the failure of the Syrian revolution to achieve its aims.

The second view welcomes the organization’s return. Those who want this are those who were linked to the group or who believe in its religious ideas. Otherwise, they are opponents of both the regime and ISIS but they consider ISIS to have committed fewer crimes than the regime and its militias.

This division has pushed the first group to become closer to the regime and to join its local militias, such as the National Defense Forces and the tribal militias, in order to defend their areas and to ensure the organization does not return.

Supporters of the group’s return are keeping silent in anticipation of the group’s return. Some of them are being used by the group in its operations in its cells in regime-controlled areas.

Meanwhile, in the SDF-controlled areas, the majority rejects the organization’s return and is working closely with the SDF on both military and civilian levels. In the SDF they see the best available option compared with the regime and ISIS. The continuing good relations between residents and the SDF are related to the group’s policy of achieving real partnership in administration and providing basic services and living necessities.

The few that welcome the return of ISIS in SDF or regime-held areas are those who were linked to the group organizationally or intellectually.

The SDF’s methods in dealing with ISIS prisoners and releasing them plays a role in neutralizing many from returning to the organization. But the issue of the divisions between these fighters and their local communities remains open – especially those who were involved in killings. This opens the doors to future retaliations, in the event that the authority of the SDF and the international coalition are undermined in these areas, given that they are seen as the only thing keeping the fuse of revenge against ISIS members being lit.