by Omar Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 53, No. 12, Rajab, 1445)
Following the territorial defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria in 2017 and 2019 respectively, the extremist terrorist outfit continues to pose a persistent, albeit weakened, threat to both countries and the broader region.
At the height of its so-called caliphate established in 2014, Daesh held about a third of Syria’s territory and 40 percent of Iraq. In Syria, today its presence is confined to pockets of the “rebel-held” province of Idlib in the northwest. It also maintains a cell structure in the desert region known as “Badiye,” consisting of Homs, Daraa, Suwayda, and Deir ez-Zor.
Demonstrating their continued presence, just last month [January 9], at least 14 Syrian soldiers were killed when Daesh carried out “a bloody attack on a military bus,” in the desert near the ancient city of Palmyra. This was in fact the second such attack in 2024, days after the terrorist group killed nine Syrian troops and allied forces in an attack on military posts in the eastern desert.
The eastern desert remains the main source of Daesh’s continued operations in the country, arguably resembling a form of “shadow governance” especially given the assassination of Daesh leader Abu Hussein al-Qurashi in April 2023, in Idlib amid clashes with rival Turkish-supported terrorist group and rebranded Al-Qaeda offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Although Turkiye’s MIT intelligence agency announced the killing first, it was later confirmed by Daesh in August of that year. He was notable in being the first Syrian leader of the group. A month later, US occupation forces in the country said they had captured a Daesh official during a raid in northern Syria.
Clearly, while Daesh may no longer control vast swaths of territory it once did, its residual presence is a persistent menace. The group has shifted its tactics, relying on insurgency and guerrilla warfare to maintain its influence in the country, while some 10,000 Daesh fighters and their families remain under detention in prisons run by US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
However, Damascus’ focus on the restive deserts will continue to be interrupted by the troublesome illegal occupation of US forces, particularly the strategically-located Tanf base. The ongoing provocative missile and drone strikes routinely carried out by the Israeli occupation regime amid its ongoing genocidal war on Gaza, and its preoccupation with Lebanon’s Hizbullah on the northern front are also keeping policy-makers in Damascus pre-occupied. To this must be added the economic impact of Yemen’s Ansarallah-led naval operations against vessels linked to Israel.
Israel’s strikes have not only damaged Syria’s vital domestic infrastructure like airports, but strategically has targeted members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stationed in the country. On January 20, a multi-storey residential block was levelled by “precision-targeted Israeli missiles.” According to the Iranian media, “The Revolutionary Guards’ Syria intel chief, his deputy and two other Guards members were martyred in the attack,” while a number of Syrian civilians and soldiers also died.
It is interesting to observe the apparent “revival” of Daesh, in conjunction with the increase in resistance operations carried out by factions against US targets in Syria and Iraq. Both the US and Israel have long been accused of having contacts with Daesh, which is paradoxical given Washington’s supposed lead role in the international anti-Daesh coalition.
There is much confusion over Washington’s willingness to remain in Syria, with a recent Foreign Policy report, citing insiders in the Pentagon and White House, as saying the Biden regime is planning a withdrawal from the country, as it “is no longer invested in sustaining a mission that it perceives as unnecessary.” Although these claims have been officially denied by the Pentagon as “erroneous”, its timing is interesting, given the renewed pressure faced by the US military from the region’s resistance against the backdrop of the war on Gaza.
However, there have been reports of the US military offering logistical and tactical support to Daesh fighters, including transporting fighters between eastern Syria and western Iraq and shelling Iraqi resistance positions on the border. As such, it cannot be “seen as a coincidence that the terror group is now re-assembling its forces to target Washington and Tel Aviv’s most capable regional foes – the Axis of Resistance – just when the US and Israel are struggling to handle a region-wide, multi-front assault from the Axis.”
No single state can tackle and eradicate Daesh by itself, and this has been evident with the Iranian-backed response to the transnational terrorist threat in the region through the Axis of Resistance.
Yet as the de-facto head of the Axis of Resistance, Iran itself suffered two deadly terrorist attacks at the start of the year in Kerman, incidentally targeting those commemorating the anniversary of the martyrdom of the head of the IRGC Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani and the deputy head of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The pair were instrumental in defeating Daesh and keeping other foreign-backed terrorist groups from reaching Baghdad and Damascus.
Although those responsible are yet to be formally identified by the authorities, Daesh’s branch in Afghanistan (ISIS-Khorasan) claimed responsibility, further illustrating the regional threat the group poses. A leader of the Afghanistan faction has since been arrested by Iranian authorities amid ongoing investigations.
However, challenges arise with Israeli strikes in the country and the ongoing US occupation, ostensibly maintained to counter the Daesh threat. Amidst these obstacles, a crucial realization emerges: much like the struggle against Al-Qaeda in the past, eradicating complex extremist ideologies such as takfirism proves exceedingly challenging if not impossible. A more effective approach involves engaging in an information war and educational campaign to subvert these ideologies.