ISIS “Resurgence” and US Policy in Syria
More than two years ago, the US declared the defeat of ISIS in Syria, then in October 2019 ISIS leader Baghdadi was reportedly killed during a US special operation in Idlib. Since then, every once in a while, some ISIS activity is reported in the news at a frequency sufficient to prevent ISIS from being completely forgotten and just enough to keep it “on the map”.
Nevertheless, since late last year, the number of reports of terrorist operations carried out by ISIS increased and the frequency of those operations became more evident again, after a period of “hibernation” between early 2019 and late 2020. Regardless of the veracity of the volume of this activity or who is truly behind it, there are several things this can accomplish by simply turning up as news in the media, nearly all of which serve the interests of those who are working tirelessly to deepen the crisis and make getting out of it increasingly more difficult.
The Global Coalition against Daesh (ISIS) was formed in September 2014, reaching today 83 members, led by the US. In October 2014, the US Department of Defense established the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to formalize the military operations against ISIS. The US launched the first airstrike against ISIS in Syria on September 23, 2014.
In the year after the first US airstrike and the subsequent coalition airstrikes, the only consistent trend was that ISIS’s control was expanding tremendously and rapidly in all directions in both Syria and Iraq.
The expansion of ISIS did not stop until several months after the direct Russian forces’ involvement in the fight against it, which began at the end of September 2015. The ISIS graph continued downward from mid-2016 until all its geographical control ended in early 2019.
From the end of 2018 and until late March 2019, former US president Donald Trump declared on more than 15 occasions that ISIS has been defeated, sometimes even claiming that all areas under ISIS control have been 100% liberated. Each time, the Pentagon had to mitigate the situation by making a corrective statement that the campaign against ISIS is not over yet and ISIS remains a threat. It was clear, nevertheless, that the military operations against ISIS in Syria were significantly reduced. However, none of these matters, especially ending the geographical control of ISIS, did not change the declared policies of the US towards Syria, as US politicians found a “fatwa” allowing them to remain militarily by inventing the term “enduring defeat” of ISIS, which we can define as follows: “We, the Americans, are working for the enduring defeat of ISIS. The enduring defeat of ISIS will come about when we decide that it has been achieved”.
Late 2020 to Now
In mid-December 2020, there were reports of record low attacks by ISIS in Syria. However, less than two weeks later and before the end of the year, there were a couple of ISIS attacks resulting in tens of casualties and more reported activity in the first few days of January 2021. In recent weeks, there was again a spike in reported ISIS activity in Syria and again a heightened media coverage of this activity.
While US officials continue to declare occasionally that the US will bring troops home from Syria and get out of the “forever wars”, the actions speak otherwise. Just two days ago, a National Guard unit in Virginia received an order for mobilization under OIR, meaning it will be deployed to Syria or Iraq) with a deployment timeframe sometime in the fall; this was a piece of news that barely made the local media outlets in Virginia, but seems to be a motion of troops in the opposite direction of that declared by the US or promised by its leaders.
The recent heightened activity was also noted by the UN’s Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, during his briefing last week to the Security Council on April 28, where he stated that ISIS “continued to ramp up the scale and reach of attacks in central and northeastern Syria – in one instance cells reportedly kidnapped dozens of civilians from rural Hama.” This incident was reported in several Western media outlets, and a couple of days ago, one outlet reported that according to EU “security analysts”, ISIS is expected to commit more attacks in the upcoming weeks and throughout the summer.
Some Possible Objectives and Reasons
Based on the above and a readout of the scene over the last few years, the existence of ISIS and its “periodic resurgence” is something that can be used to achieve several objectives by some sides, whether or not these sides are responsible for the “resurgences”.
The increased and somewhat continued ISIS activity is a “legitimate” and “convincing” pretext for the West, and mainly the US to continue “fighting ISIS” for a while, as long as the activity level is at or above a certain threshold. This continued seeming ISIS presence and activity will achieve at least the following main objectives:
First, keep the pressure on several sides in northeaster Syria, including contradictory sides, which will achieve some things in and of itself, including impeding and reducing the ability of these sides to distance themselves from the US, especially with the gradual increase in the Russian influence in that area.
Second, which is somewhat implied in the previous point, is that ISIS activity provides an excuse for the US to remain in Syria and the region at large.
It is no secret that there are at least two currents, with different positions, within the American ruling elite, regarding the issue of keeping or withdrawing forces from Syria. At a minimum, there is a disagreement about the scheduling and timing of the withdrawal. Showing a resurgence in ISIS activity supports the “argument” of the side that supports keeping the troops longer; this side sees in keeping those troops (and implicitly the continued resurgence of ISIS from time to time) an essential tool in the manufacture of the Syrian “quagmire”.
Apart from the division within the American elite itself, there may be a division of another kind that plays a role in the resurgence of ISIS; by this we mean the discrepancy has started to become wider between the US and “Israel” on a number of dossiers in the region, including the Iranian nuclear issue. This opens the door to the assumption that “Israel” is moving some ISIS sleeper cells to achieve some short-term goals.
Third, with ISIS being the number one global terrorist group in terms of the intensity of media spotlight on it (and that is throughout history, even much more than al-Qaeda and its offshoots), any operation or activity by ISIS allows a recycling of the terror record in the media, and provides an important distraction from other terrorist groups, especially al-Nusra on the Syrian front. A resurgence of ISIS in parallel with the whitewashing of al-Nusra by the US allows for creating a degree of fake “contrast” between the two groups that facilitates and speeds up the whitewashing process, while al-Nusra gets presented as “an acceptable partner for the US compared to ISIS”. This is especially so when part of the whitewashing campaign focuses on portraying al-Nusra as having a role in fighting terrorism, as well as the efforts by entities like the Middle East Institute and the International Crisis Group and others, to feature in a friendly light al-Nusra and its leader to the world.
Fourth, the resurgence of ISIS activity is an important means of prolonging the “de facto” situation. In short, the idea is the following: With ending the geographical presence of ISIS, after which followed a period of ending all forms of brutal battles in all parts of Syria (around mid-2019), a very important part of the material basis for starting a political solution had been established. However, not going towards a solution and perpetuating the de facto partition precisely needed to benefit from the “calm” of the post-battle phase, by using political and economic tools, including sanctions, to transform the de facto partition from a temporary to a permanent one.
However, the possibility of moving towards a political solution at any moment remains as long as the battles are stopped. Therefore, from the point of view of those who are against the solution, especially the US, this should be prevented, and they can achieve this by reviving the battles phase or suggesting that it has returned. As long as “the battle continues”, that remains an essential tool in the hands of the big corruption figures and the extremists who do not want any change, and they have always used the issue of fighting terrorism as an excuse to continue plundering and repressing Syrians and obstructing the political process.
If the intelligence side is the one with the greatest responsibility and highest activity in matters of mobilizing organizations like ISIS and al-Nusra, then what cannot be overlooked is the fact that the tremendous and catastrophic deterioration in the living conditions of all Syrians during the past few years, and the last year in particular, has provided a broader ground for terrorist organizations to work. This is especially so since this deterioration is accompanied by a state of helplessness and closed horizons from the point of view of many Syrians, especially young people.
In the end, although the supposed resurgence of ISIS is not good news for anyone, what is certain is that it is an expression of the knowledge of those who operate it that it is no longer possible to continue with the current tools to prevent the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, and therefore the old playbooks are being pulled off the shelves to find solutions. This in itself may constitute an important indication that we are on the threshold of moving to a qualitatively new stage.