Just over a year after the annihilation of its caliphate, ISIS seems not only reanimated but on a path to regaining its strength in Iraq and Syria. In the past month alone, ISIS has claimed 100 attacks, among them the killing of three Syrian soldiers and at least ten fighters of a Shiite militia. Slowly but steadily, the terrorists have been exploiting the current weaknesses of their adversaries.
Wasn’t ISIS Defeated in Iraq and Syria?
ISIS was considered defeated just over a year ago in the Syrian-Iraqi border area after an offensive by the US-led international anti-IS coalition. It had lost all the territory it had conquered during its run of abhorrent barbarism in 2014 and 2015.
However, even without a geographically defined territory, ISIS remained alive. While its fighters retreated to the Syrian Desert, the organization was able to save part of its million-dollar war bankroll. Even the elimination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did not seem to have a lasting impact. The latter was simply replaced by Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, according to US intelligence.
Hiding Out in the Desert
The Syrian Desert, in particular, has been an ideal retreat for ISIS. The vast area of half a million square kilometres is sparsely populated and extends from southern Syria to the Euphrates in Iraq. Syria’s government tried to prevent ISIS from breaking out of the desert region – without success. On the one hand, the Syrian army did not have the resources, and, on the other hand, President al Assad’s priorities have been to conquer the rebel stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria. As a result, ISIS has been able to spread like cancer again.
In Iraq, for example, ISIS often attack near main roads, which they then utilize to smuggle or extort, helping the terrorists to generate $ 3 million a month. Covid-19 has also been of great assistance for ISIS. Due to the pandemic, the presence of soldiers in Iraq had to be reduced as they had to monitor curfews and other pandemic regulations in the country. In some parts of Iraq, there are currently no security forces at all. Besides, the training of Iraqi soldiers, facilitated by the Europeans, is currently not being conducted.
Taking Advantage of Political Chaos
Besides the pandemic, the political volatility in Iraq has also benefited ISIS. For months, the country was lacking a functioning government. Different political groups often work against each other, only feel committed to their own interests. All of this is a real invitation to terrorists.
However, it gets worse. In the future, the US only wants to keep troops at two Iraqi bases, while all 2,000 remaining troops are to be withdrawn from Syria. While the American Air Force continues to support the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces in its operations against ISIS, the Kurds in north-eastern Syria also have to deal with the Turkish army that invaded the region last autumn — leaving not much left for prioritizing ISIS. Moreover, the Syrian Democratic Forces are currently guarding 10,000 ISIS prisoners and their families in several camps in eastern Syria.
A Weaker Iran Means a Stronger ISIS
Iran’s current weakness has also benefitted ISIS. For years, Iran, with its Shiite militias, was a determined and at least a semi-effective opponent of the jihadists in Iraq. However, Tehran cannot currently afford to fight ISIS. With the country’s economy on its knees and no improvement in sight, the situation in the country remains highly volatile and the revolt of the population would be exacerbated if Tehran continued to pursue its hegemonic fantasies with funds that are needed for Iran’s own people.
In essence, ISIS has been repeating its approach it first used during its rise to regional power, which was filling vacuums provided by weak government structures and lack of military strength. Both apply equally to parts of Syria and Iraq. These regions are far from political stability, and ISIS understands to exacerbates the trenches in the region, for example in denominational tensions between Sunni minorities and the Shiites. ISIS knows very well how to take advantage of sectarianism.
It has been a perfect storm for the terrorists, and it is conceivable that the lack of a US presence and commitment, as well as the pandemic, could lead to a return of the caliphate and even more resulting chaos in the region.