MS Risk Blog

ISIS’s Resurgence in Syria Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

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On April 9th 2020 reports emerged that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) managed to take control of As-Sukhna, a town situated in the northern countryside of Homs governorate in Syria. The capture follows the release of propaganda videos by the group showcasing ISIS operations against the Syrian Army filmed in Syria’s Badia desert. As-Sukhna is the second largest city in the Badia after Palmyra and was first seized by ISIS in 2015 only to be retaken by Syrian government forces in 2017. ISIS’s capture of the town follows two other incidents relating to the group this month alone. On the 7th of April ISIS killed two members of the National Defence Force, an Iran established regime auxiliary force in eastern Deir al-Zor province. On the 6thof April ISIS executed a woman whom the group claimed was working with the Syrian regime. Such incidents shed light on ISIS’s capability to inflict costs and capture territory in Syria amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Syria has experienced an outbreak of the virus beginning in March 2020. As of April 30th 2020, the infection toll stands at 43 while the death toll is at three.

Measures have been taken in an attempt to contain the virus. For instance, the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of North and East Syria imposed a curfew starting March 23rd prohibiting movement among the subregions of northeast Syria. The Syrian ministry of interior declared a 12-hour curfew for the rest of Syria on the 25th of March and the Syrian government declared that the commuting of citizens between province centres and all other urban and rural areas is disallowed at all times save those with clearance. The United States, which leads the international coalition to defeat ISIS and deny it a safe haven, has expressed concerns that the Islamic State may rebound amid an unfolding humanitarian crisis particularly in the north east of the country under the control of the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces as local officials sound the alarm about a lack of resources to deal with the outbreak. The US has sent some supplies such as basic medical equipment to the Syrian Democratic Forces guarding roughly 10,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters. The concern is that worsening conditions could spark riots in the detention centres providing ISIS with the opportunity to recruit additional members to its cause and take back territories it lost.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State (IS) and by its Arabic acronym Da’esh is a Salafi Jihadist group following a radical and fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam. ISIS is designated a terrorist group by the United Nations. As a splinter group of Al-Qaida, ISIS gained the world’s attention by seizing territory in Iraq when it drove out the Iraqi army from major cities including Mosul in 2014. The group furthered their territorial gains in Syria where it captured vast swaths of land to create an unrecognised proto state regarded by ISIS as a Caliphate including a significant number of wilayats or provinces with their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi considered Caliph of the Caliphate. In the height of their power ISIS controlled 88,000 square kilometres or 34,000 square miles of land in both Iraq and Syria. In addition to gaining territory and establishing a proto state the group also incorporated a number of other groups around the world into their Caliphate recognising them as provinces.

ISIS became present in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan Pakistan, Nigeria and the northern caucuses. Some, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria who pledged allegiance to Baghdadi in March 2015, were already in possession of territory. ISIS possessed a two-tier systematized vertical command structure managing the territory and its inhabitants and had thousands of foreign fighters swelling the ranks, by 2015 ISIS was reported to have at least 30,000 dedicated foreign fighters according to a UN report. The group gained such a following through effective propaganda campaigns spread over social media. ISIS had the capacity to generate 200,000 tweets and could disseminate as much as 38 unique propaganda events daily successfully spreading their ideology around the world inspiring terrorist acts. By 2016, 1200 people around the world had been killed in ISIS terrorist attacks both coordinated and inspired. This figure excludes attacks in Iraq and Syria. Despite the quick and successful gains since 2014 the group began losing territory from 2015 onward mainly due to the international coalition to defeat ISIS. By 2019 the group lost virtually all of its territory in Iraq and Syria and had lost its leader, al-Baghdadi, following a US military operation which led to his death.

Although suffering major defeat ISIS is still present in both Iraq and Syria and has managed to maintain the cohesion and integrity of its organizational structure as well as its leadership control system. Moreover, the group’s branches or provinces are still active in a number of countries maintaining some of the reach they previously had when the group was at its strongest. To some degree, the group enjoys relative freedom of movement through mobile groups that can launch attacks in fragile security areas in both Syria and Iraq. ISIS also managed to replace al-Baghdadi with Muhammad Said Abdal Rahman al-Mawla commonly known as Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Quraishi though it has been reported that Al-Quraishi may be a temporary Emir or leader given his alleged Turkmen, as opposed to Arab, ethnicity. According to ISIS’s interpretation of Islamic law the Caliph must be a descendent of the Quraish-Hashemite tribe.

The implications of ISIS resurging amid a covid-19 outbreak in Syria could be significant. The Syrian government, already concerned with maintaining a fragile ceasefire with Turkish forces, now has to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus which proves to be a herculean task for developed countries. The coronavirus outbreak in Syria could lead to a new humanitarian crisis. Such a crisis in Syria could further destabilize the war-torn country. It is likely that ISIS will attempt to take advantage of the conditions in Syria and attempt to take further villages and towns. Considering ISIS’s proven capability to take territory quickly and in large swaths, the threat is all that greater. But the coronavirus can also hinder ISIS’s resurgence as  members and potential recruits may be infected with the virus and are liable to spread it to other members. Yet this does not diminish the threat of a high-level attack during a period where security in Syria is further weakened due to the coronavirus pandemic.