During the same week the U.S. and Russia declared victory over ISIS in Syria, the militant group launched a series of surprise attacks around the country. Despite the triumphant claims of world leaders, these offensives suggest such statements are a little premature.
The same day that President Vladimir Putin declared victory over the so-called Islamic State, the militant group launched a surprise offensive against government forces in Deir Ezzor province, killing up to 31 pro-government fighters in the following three days.
“In just over two years, Russia’s armed forces and the Syrian army have defeated the most battle-hardened group of international terrorists,” Putin told Russian forces on Monday during a visit to Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria, before ISIS attacked government positions north of the town of Boukamal, a former key stronghold for the militants.
U.S. President Donald Trump made similar victory claims on Tuesday while signing the National Defense Authorization Act into law. The bill, he said, “authorizes funding for our continued campaign to obliterate ISIS. We’ve won in Syria … but they [ISIS] spread to other areas and we’re getting them as fast as they spread.”
The following day, however, ISIS militants engaged in clashes with a Pentagon-backed rebel group near a U.S. base in al-Tanf in southwest Syria. Militants near the Palestinian Yarmouk camp south of Damascus also launched an attack on government positions in the nearby al-Tadamon neighborhood, seizing 12 buildings. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described it as the largest offensive south of the capital “in months.”
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS south of the Syrian capital, Damascus.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
While it’s unclear if ISIS timed the attacks as a response to the U.S. and Russian statements, the militant’s new offensives serve as a reminder that it may be too soon to sound the death knell for ISIS in Syria, experts said.
At the height of its power in 2015, ISIS commanded territory in Iraq and Syria larger than the size of Ireland. This year, however, separate Russian and U.S. military campaigns pushed militants out of all their major strongholds across the two countries. While Putin and Trump call this a complete defeat others remain skeptical.
“I think that there’s a bit of ambiguity and confusion with regard to what a defeat might look like,” Simon Mabon, a lecturer in international relations at Lancaster University and co-author of The Origins of ISIS, told Syria Deeply.
“Whilst some will talk of a military defeat and the liberation of Syrian-Iraqi territory, the bigger and arguably much trickier struggle is about defeating the ideology and preventing the group – or a manifestation of it – from re-emerging,” Mabon said.
Earlier this month, Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian military officer claimedthat “not a single village or district in Syria under the control of ISIL.”
According to the SOHR, ISIS still controls 3 percent of Syrian territory, or 5,600 square kilometers (2,162 square miles). ISIS is present in southern Damascus, in “large parts” of the Yarmouk camp as well as in parts of the al-Tadamon and al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhoods, where they are battling government forces.
ISIS is also active in desert regions east of the government-held town of Sukhana in Homs province as well as in a small enclave in northeast Hama, where it is engaged in fighting with the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance.
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS in Hama province.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
Militants also control at least 18 towns and villages in Deir Ezzor province, where it is battling both the Syrian government and the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces. In Syria’s southern province of Daraa, ISIS controls a small enclave close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where it has previously clashed with rebel forces.
A map of control showing territory held by ISIS in the southern province of Daraa.
By Omran for strategic studies -Nawar Oliver
Some White House staff and French President Emmanuel Macron said they were wary of Russia’s claim of victory on the ground. “We think the Russian declarations of ISIS’ defeat are premature,” an unidentified White House National Security Council spokeswoman told Reutersin a report published Tuesday.
“We have repeatedly seen in recent history that a premature declaration of victory was followed by a failure to consolidate military gains, stabilize the situation, and create the conditions that prevent terrorists from reemerging,” she said.
The militant’s last vestiges of territory are coming under severe strain by a wide array of rivals. It is only a matter of time before militants are driven to rugged hideouts in Homs and in the Euphrates Valley region. But as military battles subside across the country, a slow-grinding and methodical campaign should kick off to prevent an ISIS resurgence.
“To properly talk of a victory over the group, the conditions that gave rise to them must be eradicated. By that, I mean that people must improve their living conditions, be granted better access to political structures and to be able to exert their agency in whatever way they wish,” Mabon said.
“To fully defeat ISIS, such conditions must be addressed, preventing grievances from emerging that force people to turn to groups such as ISIS as a means of survival,” he added.
However, with military operations against militants still underway, there has yet to be any significant attempt to battle the ideological residues of the group or address the grievances that led to its emergence.
In an attempt at countering ISIS’ ideology, activists and Islamic scholars set up the Syrian Counter Extremism Center (SCEC)in the countryside of Aleppo in October. However, the so-called terrorist rehabilitation center has limited funding, giving it little ability to prevent the return of ISIS, especially after hundreds of ISIS-affiliated militants and defectors flocked to opposition-held areas in northern Syria in recent months.
Iraq, whose military also declared victory over ISIS this month after driving militants from their major strongholds, is already confronting a possible return of the extremist organization, in a further indication that claims of victory are premature.
According to the Iraq Oil Report, a new armed group, hoisting a white flag that bears a lion’s head, has recently appeared in disputed territories in northern Iraq. Citing local leaders and Iraqi intelligence, the report claimed that some members of the new group are known to have been members of ISIS. This has given rise to fears that ISIS may be “regrouping and rebranding for guerrilla warfare,” the report said.
A regrouping of ISIS would not come as a surprise, especially since militants can still capitalize on grievances in marginalized Sunni communities across Iraq and Syria.
“Across both states, Sunnis had been persecuted and marginalized, politically and economically, along with the physical threat to their very survival,” Mabon said.
“Whilst many are fearful and angry of ISIS, the deeper issues of marginalization and persecution remain.”
Important Note The most important terms reportedly included: implementation of a ceasefire in exchange for the entry of basic humanitarian aid and water; the establishment of a Syrian Regime local governance structure and the dissolution of all local opposition administrative structures.
Important Note The humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta continues to deteriorate. Bread pack prices reached 1,900 SP, 1kg of rice is currently at 4,000 SP, and most day-to-day essentials are scarce in public markets.
Important Note Last weapons shipment to enter the area was reportedly delivered on November 23, on November 24, President Trump reportedly informed President Erdogan that the U.S. intended to end its support to the SDF in Syria.
Important Note The camp’s inhabitants reportedly suffer from a lack of basic food items, especially bread, as well as limited WASH and medical support. Unconfirmed reports indicate that around 150-200 people have been evacuated to Damascus each week since the start of December for medical treatment. Generally speaking, IDPs in Al-Hasakeh governorate continue to experience difficult conditions, especially given the limited capacity of existing camps to host all those displaced from Deir Ez-Zor governorate as well as worsening seasonal weather conditions.
Important Note December 1 and 4, Israeli airstrikes also targeted Government of Syria-controlled munitions storage facilities located between Kisweh and Sahnaya, south of Damascus city, and in Jamraya, in Qudsiya subdistrict.
Important Note this comes after a statement on December 9, in which the Syrian Interim Government’s Head of Public Relations was cited as having described the Salvation Government as a terrorist organization.
With political control fragmented among local powerbrokers in Syria, Russia’s overreliance on the Assad regime to protect its interests is a strategic threat. Despite current intersecting interests, neither the regime nor its Iranian allies are reliable partners. Competing and conflicting interests may finally come to a head once a political solution begins to take shape and Syria embarks on reconstruction, particularly in light of new regional arrangements.
Belying Vladimir Putin’s claim during his surprise visit to Syria that Russia is pulling back, these factors have in fact driven Russia to work to develop new tools that will enable it to maximize its gains and safeguard its interests in Syria.
Russia reportedly has seven military bases housing approximately 6,000 individuals in Syria, and an estimated 1,000 Russian military police spread throughout the de-escalation zones and areas recently reclaimed from the opposition as a result of reconciliation agreements. Russia has also entrusted several private security forces with the task of carrying out special missions ostensibly in its war against ISIS and with protecting Russian energy installations and investment projects; these include the paramilitary group, ChVK Vagner, which, according to sources, has around 2,500 individuals on the ground in Syria.
But Russia realizes that it is not strong enough to guarantee its interests in Syria on its own and that it must rely on local partners to do so. Hence, Moscow is making efforts on two separate fronts. One is vertical – aiming to establish lasting influence within state institutions, particularly the military and security apparatus – by investing in influential decision makers, such as General Ali Mamlouk, director of the Baath Party’s National Security Bureau, and General Deeb Zeitoun, head of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, two of the most prominent security men.
The other is horizontal in nature. Russia is keen to develop relationships with local powerbrokers directly in order to build inroads with local communities with a view to balancing Iran’s growing influence within Syrian society. These relationships could be used as leverage to sway political negotiations towards Russian interests, while also recruiting them as local partners and guarantors for Russian investments.
The Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria at Hmeimim Airbase plays a key role in communications with local powerbrokers; however, the communication mechanism and those responsible for it vary according to who controls the relevant areas. In coordination with the National Security Bureau, Russia has been able to engage with local powerbrokers in regime-controlled areas, including various political parties, local dignitaries and religious and tribal leaders, through Reconciliation Centre staff. It has also been able to communicate with the Kurds via military and security channels like Hmeimim Airbase and the Russian Ministry of Defence or via political channels managed by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in coordination with Hmeimim.
But Russia faces a dilemma communicating with local powerbrokers in opposition controlled areas and dealing with the influence of multiple regional actors. To overcome those challenges, it has employed several mechanisms to communicate with these groups in an attempt to co-opt them, using important political figures such as Ahmad Jarba to communicate with local leadership in besieged areas like Homs and Eastern Ghouta, and resorting to local reconciliation committees (primarily made up of local dignitaries and technocrats associated with the regime) that possess their own communication channels that can be used to communicate with the local opposition, as was the case in Al-Tel shortly before the Free Syrian Army’s withdrawal.
According to an activist from northern Homs, Russia is also very much dependent on cadres of Chechen Muslim military police, fluent in Arabic, to communicate with local leaderships. In addition, Moscow has used Track II diplomacy to network with local powerbrokers and open up back channels through relationships with regional powers.
Russia has so far employed the ‘carrot and stick’ model when communicating with local powerbrokers to ensure its influence, offering up benefits like security protection and financing, while guaranteeing them a place at the negotiating table and a share of reconstruction revenue. But based on past form, more heavy-handed measures to pressure local powerbrokers, such as making them targets of future military operations or playing on local rivals to marginalize or giving preference to one group over another in a political solution and reconstruction arrangements, remain on the table.
Although it has made strides stabilizing its military presence and legitimizing its security arm in Syria, Russia still faces challenges generating leverage within state institutions and Syrian society where Iran opposes Russia's efforts. The regime’s many centres of power, reliance on militias and weak institutions limit Russia’s efforts to consolidate its influence in the rest of Syria. Similarly, Moscow is finding it difficult to communicate with Syria’s many powerbrokers and differentiate between their demands, references and allegiances to other regional powers – making Russia’s strategic pillars in Syria all the more fragile.
Important Note:The humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta continues to deteriorate. Bread pack prices reached 1,900 SP, 1kg of rice is currently at 4,000 SP, and most day-to-day essentials are scarce in public markets.
Important NoteMarkada was considered as the last major city controlled by ISIS in the governorate. Moreover, SDF control over Markada secures its control over the eastern bank of Euphrates River in southern Deir Ez Zor, as well as oil and gas in the area. Nevertheless, reprisal attacks by ISIS combatants remain possible.
Important Note Clashes reportedly ensued after Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham attempted to prevent combatants who defected from Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham from joining Noureddine Zinki in Hayyan and Andan, in Haritan subdistrict, which is controlled by both groups. During the clashes.
Important Note as of November 5, Hashd Sha’bi, an Iraqi Hashd Sha’bi militia, took control over Al-Qaim town and its nearby border crossing, opposite Abukamal along the Iraqi-Syria border.
Important Note 69,047 individuals have been displaced from Abukamal subdistrict to SDF-controlled areas in northern and eastern Syria due to clashes between Syrian Regime forces and ISIS.
Available fields for Interns
Important Note: As of the end of September, nearly 708,000 individuals are reported to still remain in ISIS-held communities in Deir-Ez-Zor governorate. This includes approximately 120,000 individuals in ISIS-held northern Deir-Ez-Zor governorate between Tabni, Tabni subdistrict, Deir-Ez-Zor City and the Euphrates River; 68,000 individuals in the ISIS-controlled western Deir-Ez-Zor governorate from Khasham in Khasham subdistrict to Markada across Khabour River; 120,000 in southern Deir-Ez-Zor governorate from Hajin to Abukamal; and nearly 400,000 individuals in the central Deir-Ez-Zor governorate.
Omran Center for Strategic Studies organized a workshop in partnership with and hosted by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). The workshop discussed international cooperation prospects on institutional reforms necessary to restore stability in Syria. This workshop took place at GCSP on 21-22 September 2017.
The workshop brought together 35 experts and researchers from the US, Russia, Germany, the UK, France, Australia, Switzerland, and Syria. The participants gathered for two days to exchange views on stability in post-war Syria.
The vibrant discussions focused on the place of Syria in the West-Russia global power contest; institutional reforms within the political transition; prospects of cooperation on reconstruction; local governance; de-radicalization and counter-terrorism; and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR).
The workshop is part of the Syria and Global Security project, jointly run by Omran and GCSP. It is an initiative to offer a platform for collective informed discussions on Syria that eventually could build bridges between experts and researchers in order to bring peace and security to Syria, and the region.
Important Note: The Sha’ytat Tribe is internally divided, as some are aligned with Government of Syria forces, while others are aligned with the SDF.