Written by Facundo E. Saponara
As NATO members continue to concentrate on the ongoing events in Eastern Europe, the situation in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, has been remarkably dynamic in the last couple of weeks. ISIS has been capable of exploiting the current security situation and may probably continue to do so at a larger scale in the following months. What is needed to put a stop to the groups revived growth?
Attack on Ghuwaryan prison
Since the fall of the physical caliphate in 2019, thousands of Islamic State combatants have been placed in Kurdish-run prisons to temporarily limit the possibility of the group's resurgence in the region. However, thousands of the arrested suspects linked to the Islamic State have been released due to the perceived 'low threat' they pose. Kurdish authorities informed their prisons currently hold over 12,000 ISIS-linked detainees.
According to the UN, Kurdish prisons appear to be overpopulated and undermanned. Which has made these installations very likely targets for ISIS activity either from within (indoctrination and radicalization of other inmates, facilitated by the poor living conditions and the lack of control) or from outside (assaults on the structure itself).
On 20 January, 2022, over 100 fighters linked with Daesh attacked the Ghuwayran prison in Hassakeh, northern Syria. At the time, Ghuwayran held an estimated 3,500 ISIL-linked prisoners and approximately 5,000 detainees total, consequently making the prison an important target for the group.
The scale of the attack is exemplary of ISIL’s expansionist pursuit in the Syrian Arab Republic and the Middle East. Daesh was capable of mobilizing over 100 of its fighters for a single attack (in the largest operation in almost three years) which should be considered a sign that the group has slowly but surely been securing limited gains in the country. Such victories have materialized in renewed control over areas of the Syrian desert, where the security apparatus of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces is not capable of projecting power in a permanent manner. ISIL used this critical factor to expand its presence further north and exploit security gaps in the areas between Kurdish-controlled and Syrian-controlled territories.
The limited pressure suffered by the group has increased its operational margin, as local, regional and global actors continue to pursue objectives not necessarily aligned with a continued military effort against the Islamic State. From the Syrian perspective, the biggest threat continues to lay in the Turkish presence in Northern Syria and the Turkish-backed rebel groups in the Northwest of the country.
These circumstances have created a context where the Islamic State is capable of exploiting power vacuums that are existent in the country after a decade of war, the partial withdrawal of the US from Syria, and the limited control of the majority of the country's territory by the Syrian Arab Armed Forces.
The attack on Ghuwayran was considered critical enough for the US to provide air support for the Kurdish forces holding back the terrorist militants. Additionally, Washington put in motion a raid in Syrian territory that liquidated Daesh's leader Abu Ibrahim al-Qurayshi in February 2022.
The death of an ISIS Caliph is not a minor occurrence. The loyalty sworn by the group's cells is not to Daesh itself but to the specific Caliph leading the organization at a particular moment. Every time a leader of ISIS is eliminated, all cell leaders need to pledge loyalty to the new Caliph. A very political process that might not always lead to an actual pledge.
However, alarmingly, ISIS has recently been gaining ground in Syria and Iraq, and the outer provinces. This, in addition to ISIL's demonstrated ability to adapt to new circumstances, has probably simplified the decision-making process for most cell leaders. In the past weeks, there have been numerous pledges of loyalty by the group's external leaders that were to be expected as a result of the victories the organization has been securing as of late.
How the global context could benefit ISIL
Even as the group still finds itself limited in its capabilities and reach, ISIL has regained strength in Syria and the region. The global, regional, and local contexts continue to benefit the growth of Daesh. The events at a global level are worrying as they could potentially worsen the security scenario in a matter of months. The direct or indirect involvement of the two major players in Syria, Russia and the United States, in the Ukrainian conflict might greatly benefit Daesh's activity in the country in the short term.
Unconfirmed reports of Russian withdrawal from some areas of Syria and their replacement by Iranian troops have also been circulating as of late. Analysts have considered this might be a prelude to a possible partial Russian withdrawal. Up until this point, the Russian invasion of Ukraine hasn't been costly enough to demand the relocation of the Russian units deployed in Syria.
That being said, the dawn of new threats may force Russia into making such a move. The possible inclusion of Finland and Sweden in NATO, the ever-growing number of NATO troops deployed to the alliance's 'eastern flank', and the indefinite continuation of the conflict in Ukraine could potentially alter the balance of power in Syria.
If reports on Iranian forces replacing Russian military units are correct, the ingress of a new flux of Iranian fighters may fuel sectarian tensions in the near future, straining the Syrian society even further and opening the gates for Daesh's exploitation of the country's historical sectarian conflict.
Facing China's expansion and a possible war with Russia, Washington will likely continue to focus their efforts on their near-peer adversaries. Thus, limiting their actions in the Middle East and possibly withdrawing troops as the context in the region continues to become more unfavorable for maintaining a military presence.
If the United States were to continue its current course of action in the Middle East, US forces will be restricted to reactionary military operations. Such an approach would facilitate the growth of Daesh in Syria as long as they continue to maintain a low operational profile.
State of ISIL and policy recommendations
The current operational status of the Islamic State (low-level insurgency) makes them incapable of exploiting sectarian tensions at the national level. But ISIL has proven its ability to make use of sectarian and social tensions in the areas where the group is present. Thus, recruiting more militants into their lines and weakening their local adversaries.
The potential for ISIS to grow in Syria is considerable, especially if the aforementioned scenarios were to materialize. Very recently, the new leader of ISIL, Abu Hasan al-Hashemi al-Qurashi, has vowed to take revenge on the death of the group's previous leader and is urging its supporters to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine and attack Europe from within.
If the context continues to facilitate it, ISIL will probably continue to augment its operations in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere (mainly in Africa and Central Asia). If Daesh is allowed to grow at a sustained rate in Africa or Central Asia, the outer cells may be able to function as sponsors of terrorist activity in the Levant. Similarly to how ISIL sponsored the growth of its cells at a global level in the previous decade.
The Islamic State continues to grow in Syria as a consequence of the limited threat that they currently pose to local, regional and global actors. If ISIL considerably expanded and established a permanent presence over a particular area (unlikely as they continue to benefit from small-scale operations), this would turn their operatives, capabilities, and facilities into more vulnerable targets, damaging their activities in the region. Additionally, IS cannot currently sponsor terrorist attacks in Europe. The Islamic State is heavily dependent on sleeper cells -as well as "lone wolves"- that are spread all over the continent to take action and acquire the means to do so by themselves.
Turkish officials announced the capture of a member of ISIL on May 26th, 2022, after a raid in Istanbul. National authorities claim this is the Islamic State's new leader as of February 2022. If ISIL's leader is truly detained in Turkey, this would be a historical event as a Caliph of the Islamic State has never been captured alive before.
Consequently, this could alter the current trend of the group's operational expansion in the region through a method of leadership decapitation that the Islamic State has never previously experienced, namely imprisonment. The capture of Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is exemplary of the fact that capturing alive the leadership of a terrorist organization could prove to be much more destabilizing than eliminating them (at least in the short term).
Lamentably, the Islamic State has proven itself capable of adapting to new circumstances rather rapidly and efficiently. And, although the capture of Öcalan was a bargaining chip for the Turkish government and forced the PKK into reducing its lethality, this was just a momentary solution as PKK has become more and more lethal as time went by.
This could very much be the case for the Islamic State as even if the group wasn't able to fully adjust to these new set of circumstances in the short term, ISIL's senior leadership could continue operating at a local scale. At least, until communications with the group's Caliph can be reestablished. Which, considering Öcalan is still capable of leading the PKK from within a Turkish prison (not a minor detail since the PKK presents a much more of a threat to the Turkish State than the Islamic State does), ISIL may very well replicate this strategy. Security forces all over the European Union should continue to hunt down as many of the group's sleeper cells as possible to limit the threat of a new wave of terrorist attacks and reduce the number of individuals that may fall under the indoctrination program of IS. Security measures are to be put in motion to limit the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in particular through military cooperation with all parties that have a considerable military presence in the region. In order to accomplish this, intermediaries, such as the Kurds or the Iraqi government, would play a crucial role in facilitating cooperation between adversaries and achieving the shared goal of limiting the growth of the Islamic State.
Furthermore, Humanitarian support is to be provided to Kurdish forces in northern Syria as a prerequisite to limit the success of ISIL's indoctrination programs in refugee camps by bettering the living conditions of those residing inside them. Military and technical support should be directed towards Kurdish forces in order to increment the security inside al-Hol and other refugee camps, properly man and equip Kurdish prisons and increment the security on the border between the Kurdish-controlled and Syrian-controlled territories.
And lastly, in the light of a new set of Turkish offensives on northern Syria, NATO members should instigate both Kurdish and Turkish actors into making compromises, such as the usage of ISIS prisons and the recognition of their direct vicinity as defensive zones protected by Kurdish forces. These zones should be left unharmed by the Turkish army and Turkey-aligned militias.
About the author: Facundo E. Saponara
Facundo E. Saponara holds a BA in Government and International Relations from the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa and is currently enrolled in the Master’s degree in Strategy and Geopolitics at the Escuela Superior de Guerra. He has been assigned as the Area Coordinator of the Middle East Investigation Team at the Center for International Policy Studies from the University of Buenos Aires. Facundo has dedicated most of his professional and academic career to the study of international security and asymmetric warfare in particular, with a special interest in terrorism.
The article was edited by Ruben Pfeijffer