Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

ISIS Is Recovering in Syria, But Stability Is Vitally Needed

When ISIS’s territorial “state” was defeated in Syria more than three years ago, the world celebrated a historic achievement. For five years, a coalition of more than 80 countries had combined resources to roll back ISIS in Syria and Iraq and counter the terrorist group’s presence on the Internet, as well as its financial networks and newfound affiliates around the world. Within months of ISIS’s last pocket of land falling in March 2019, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by US special forces in October. More recently, his successor, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi was killed in February 2022.

Despite some domestic political concerns, American troops remain deployed in Syria alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces and a recent visit by the newly appointed commander of US Central Command, Major General Kurilla, to the region made that continued commitment clear. On the surface therefore, the multinational effort to defeat ISIS appears to know only successes in Syria – and also in Iraq, where security forces have demonstrated a far superior capacity to counter the group than prior to 2014.

However, the reality is far more complex, and concerning. Three months ago, at least 100 ISIS militants launched the group’s biggest attack in years by assaulting the al-Sina Prison in Hasakeh. The operation, coordinated by senior ISIS commander Abu Miqdad al-Iraqi killed at least 140 SDF personnel and freed dozens if not several hundred members, including long-imprisoned and experienced commanders, like Abu Dujana al-Iraqi and Abu Hamza al-Sharqiyeh.

According to local sources, ISIS’s escapees were transported south in a pre-planned evacuation towards the desert region north of Baghouz and east of al-Busayrah, along the Iraqi border. This is an area that has become a de facto ISIS stronghold over the past 12 months, where the group maintains a regular system of taxation of local civilians and small businesses and receives local recruits and repentance from local SDF personnel. More widely throughout Syria’s central Badiya desert, ISIS runs a network of safehouses, desert encampments, and small desert training camps.

It is from these small and mobile positions that ISIS has sustained a regular campaign of insurgent attacks, targeting the SDF and Syrian regime forces. In the months since the al-Sina Prison attack, ISIS’s attacks have also become increasingly brazen and in some cases, more sophisticated. A series of coordinated, simultaneous attacks in rural Homs and southern Raqqa in March temporarily captured a number of pro-regime military positions and populated territory.

Assuming increased risk suggests ISIS is likely to retain more resources than before and the fact that it maintains such open control in areas east of the Euphrates implies it is unconcerned about any localized challenge to its influence. ISIS also appears to be purposefully underclaiming responsibility for a majority of its operations in Syria in a strategy that can only be aimed at instilling a false sense of confidence within the international community. In fact, ISIS militants have been behind more than 50 attacks in the Badiya desert since mid-November 2021, but have claimed responsibility for none of them.

Beyond ISIS activities and the continued vulnerability of the SDF’s network of makeshift detention facilities holding thousands of battle-hardened ISIS prisoners, the international community should also be acutely concerned by the worsening situation in camps like al-Hol. At least 60,000 women and children remain within these internment camps, where living conditions are appalling and insecurity continues to rise. Until their host governments are willing to have them repatriated, camps like al-Hol will remain valuable recruitment props for ISIS, and festering humanitarian crises that are a stain on the world.

With Syria’s economy and currency continuing to spiral, a food crisis around the corner, and much of Syria’s northeast still damaged from hostilities with ISIS, the extremist group will continue to exploit economic suffering and desperation. At the end of the day, the United States and its allies within the global coalition must acknowledge the vital importance of long-term, non-military strategic tools in the fight against ISIS. The counter-ISIS coalition needs to surge stabilization assistance and targeted rebuilding throughout the former-ISIS region, working to create a more promising and sustainable alternative to renewed conflict and instability. Far too little of this recovery work has been pursued since 2019.

With the war in Ukraine set to distract international attention for the time being, ISIS will likely continue its slow but methodical strategy of recovery, knowing well that conditions that could fuel that recovery are likely only to improve with time. The group remains a shadow of its former self, but it has time on its side and has a track record of patience. The world must wake up to the need to invest more seriously in all aspects of stabilization, before it is too late.