With so much global attention devoted to the COVID-19 (a.k.a. coronavirus) crisis, extremists worldwide are exploiting this pandemic to further their interests. In Syria, the remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) see the coronavirus as an opportunity to step up their insurgent attacks.
From ISIS’ perspective, this global pandemic provides a valuable opportunity to ramp up its violent attacks against its enemies in Syria.
Although the virus represents a threat to ISIS as its members are not immune to it, the group sees COVID-19 as an overall positive development. From ISIS’ perspective, this global pandemic provides a valuable opportunity to ramp up its violent attacks against its enemies in Syria. ISIS’ recent bombings, killings, and kidnappings in eastern Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa’s countryside, and the Homs area highlight how ISIS is operating. These actions have targeted the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), various pro-government militias, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as well as all their alleged collaborators.
According to one source, ISIS was behind the death of over 400 people in Syria between March 24 and April 9. During this time, ISIS put out a video (“Attrition Saga”), which documented ISIS’ possession of anti-tank missiles in Syria, as well as some of its recent operations which demonstrated the group’s ability to move its fighters around the Badia desert quite easily.
ISIS is taking advantage of new circumstances created by measures taken in Syria and around the world to contain the transmission of COVID-19 such as quarantining and social distancing. During this pandemic, ISIS has found itself adapting quickly to the new conditions, in part due to the fact that the group’s terror cells were already isolated in remote areas, making its fighters less susceptible to the disease.
This month, as the ISIS insurgent threat became graver, Russian fighter jets and attack helicopters struck against the group’s targets for 36 hours.
This month, as the ISIS insurgent threat became graver, Russian fighter jets and attack helicopters struck against the group’s targets for 36 hours. The Russians were responding to ISIS taking over an SAA military post near the gas town of Sukhna (located between Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor) and attacking a Syrian military convoy. The Russian fighter jets and attack helicopters struck militants from the group in the al-Waar area, reportedly resulting in heavy clashes.
As an apocalyptical group with much rhetoric about the end-of-times, ISIS has its own narratives about the coronavirus crisis which are aimed at validating itself and its ideology. Since this pandemic broke out in late 2019 and early 2020, ISIS propaganda has depicted COVID-19 as divine punishment against “infidels” such as the Chinese, Americans, and others. China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and the United States’ role in ISIS’ loss of Baghouz in March 2019 have been at the heart of these propaganda talking points throughout the coronavirus crisis.
The extremist group has also addressed the virus’ effects on Iran. International Crisis Group documented how ISIS has “gloated that the contagion was an exemplary punishment from God for Shiite Muslim ‘idolatry.’”
Along with Iraq, Syria is one place where ISIS will likely be successful in capitalizing on U.S.-Iran brinkmanship if it remains intense amid the COVID-19 crisis without any “humanitarian de-escalation.” The risk of a new conflict erupting in the Middle East as a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign—and Iran’s “maximum resistance” to it—is real.
The risk of a new conflict erupting in the Middle East as a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign—and Iran’s “maximum resistance” to it—is real.
Such a scenario would open many new opportunities for ISIS, a sworn enemy of both the U.S. and Iran, to take advantage of even more violent tumult in the region on top of the pandemic. For multiple reasons, the disease would spread even more rapidly if a violent conflict between the U.S. and Iran erupts. In part, this is because such regional chaos would severely undermine any prospects for transnational cooperation in the struggle against COVID-19 in Syria and the greater Middle East.
Regardless of how Washington and Tehran’s standoff plays out in Syria and the rest of the region, it is a safe bet that ISIS will continue finding ways to try to become as much of a beneficiary of coronavirus as possible. As this disease consumes resources of the war-battered government in Damascus along with its main regional patron in Iran—plus other actors that have been fighting ISIS in Syria—the Islamic State will take full advantage of its enemies’ growing weaknesses.
If ISIS is not properly dealt with in Syria, there are legitimate concerns to express about how this global pandemic could help pave the way for a return of the “Caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East. Such worries constitute yet another reason for the Trump administration to reconsider its strategies for dealing with Tehran amid a global crisis that requires more international cooperation and less fighting between governments.
Clearly, Syria and other war-torn, fragmented, and weak countries will find themselves most vulnerable to ISIS’ potential to exploit the coronavirus on its own hateful terms. Throughout this period, governments must continue coping not only with COVID-19, but also the countless ways in which violent extremists will seek to intensify their violence while the disease keeps on distracting the international community.