“You can almost see the next generation of ISIS in those camps today. It’s a tremendous problem.”
These words came from US Major General Alexus Grynkewich, whom last month the Pentagon appointed director of operations for US Central Command. He was discussing the threat of radicalization in northeast Syria’s camps, which remains a central focus in the struggle against Islamic State (ISIS) remnants in Syria nine months after the so-called Caliphate fell at Baghouz, the extremist group’s final stronghold in the country.
A recent report from The Independent shed further light on this looming crisis. With approximately 10,000 women and children, who are the wives and young sons and daughters of foreign ISIS fighters, detained at the al-Hol camp, a “mutiny is brewing,” according to Richard Hall, who recently visited the facility.
“Over the past few months,” he said, “sharia courts have been set up by camp detainees still loyal to the terror group. There has been a spate of killings targeting those who do not abide by the laws set by those courts. Riots have broken out and guards have been attacked with knives.”
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Aaron Y. Zelin wrote a piece in October that discussed a “core vanguard of female IS supporters [who] have been keeping the movement alive within camps housing the families who left [Baghouz]” with the al-Hol camp being the “most notable” example. Zelin mentioned “Jabal al-Baghuz,” a section of that camp made up of foreigners who are “true believers” seeking to “preserve the group’s territorial aspirations and brutal methods of governance.” Within the camp, the Khansa Brigade, comprised of female members of ISIS, runs institutions that enforce rules through forms of vigilantism that bears responsibility for barbaric deaths of “many women and children” and educates children with the goal of creating future ISIS fighters among the youth.
All actors from the government in Damascus and its Russian, Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies to Western powers and Turkey see the potential resurgence of ISIS in northeast Syria as a major security challenge.
To be sure, although ISIS’s enemies successfully destroyed the infrastructure of the physical “caliphate” following years of warfare, the spirit of ISIS has survived and will not disappear from Syria at any point in the foreseeable future. All actors from the government in Damascus and its Russian, Iranian, Iraqi, and Lebanese allies to Western powers and Turkey see the potential resurgence of ISIS in northeast Syria as a major security challenge. Yet as diverse actors jockey for power in areas that ISIS previously controlled, the messy and complicated geopolitical conflicts pitting these state and non-state actors against each other threaten to provide ISIS with new opportunities to re-emerge in northeast Syria.
In response to Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which Ankara launched on October 9 after US military forces moved out of a certain area near the Turkish-Syrian border, the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) started funneling more of its fighters and resources to countering the Turkish incursion, which has granted ISIS opportunities to operate its sleeper cells under less pressure. As the global media reported on extensively throughout October, cases of detained ISIS terrorists fleeing YPG-administered prison facilities amid the chaos stemming from the Kurdish group’s fighting with Turkey’s military and Ankara-backed Syrian militias highlighted the real dangers of ISIS regaining ground.
There is no denying that recent decisions by the Trump administration have created somewhat of a void which Russia has acted decisively to fill. Last month, Russian forces landed in an air base in northeast Syria recently vacated by US forces. Also, earlier this month, Russia’s military entered Raqqa, which used to be ISIS’s capital city before US and YPG forces finished “liberating” the Syrian city 26 months ago. Such developments have been further indicators of the extent to which Moscow has emerged as a powerful actor in the Middle East largely at Washington’s expense.
Nonetheless, the US continues conducting its anti-ISIS military operations in northeast Syria, further complicating the security landscape at a time when the Damascus regime remains one hundred percent committed to retaking control of every inch of Syrian territory, while fully opposing Turkey and America’s military presences in the country.
No matter how many governments and militias deploy their forces to fight terrorist groups in northeast Syria, extremists will always be able to (re)emerge in the area unless root causes of their existence are addressed.
No matter how many governments and militias deploy their forces to fight terrorist groups in northeast Syria, extremists will always be able to (re)emerge in the area unless root causes of their existence are addressed. Without stability in Syria, it is practically inevitable for ISIS or similar entities to return to the scene. Unfortunately, with continual chaos in Iraq, the same is true for that country as well.
As evidenced by the rise of ISIS-linked entities in the Egyptian Sinai, Libya, West Africa, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the greater Islamic world, instability and power vacuums easily create space for extremists. Over the years, groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have successfully exploited significant problems that states were unable or unwilling to solve previously.
In the case of northeast Syria, even without the caliphate retaining its state apparatus with its series of wilayat (provinces), which was crushed during the battle for Baghouz in March, ISIS has worked to preserve the structure as an organization while attempting to remain relevant as an underground faction. The extremist group has managed to streamline its decision-making by unifying all its wilayat into one single province: Wilayat al-Sham.
Since the fall of Baghouz, ISIS has successfully remained relevant in Syria through hundreds of attacks carried out in the style of an insurgency unleashed in areas of Syria controlled by various actors, including the Damascus regime, the SDF, and Iranian-backed militias. Over the past nine months, the majority of these attacks have occurred in Deir ez-Zur, Hasaka, and Raqqa, while a smaller number have also taken place in Homs, Aleppo, Daraa, and Damascus.
Looking ahead, there are solid reasons for the international community to worry about northeast Syria. Once an ISIS stronghold, this area of Syria will remain vulnerable to jihadist terrorist organizations that constantly thrive on disruption, chaos, and instability. Although Trump, who is busy campaigning for his re-election, constantly tells American voters that with him in the Oval Office the US has destroyed ISIS, the reality is that ISIS has not been crushed in northeast Syria. Far from it.
With chaotic conditions in this part of Syria and the spirit of ISIS remaining alive, it would be naïve for any observer to take Trump’s rhetoric about ISIS’s defeat at face value.
The apocalyptical group has a narrative that can resonate with many displaced, radicalized, and angry locals who may join ISIS’s ranks in the future. With chaotic conditions in this part of Syria and the spirit of ISIS remaining alive, it would be naïve for any observer to take Trump’s rhetoric about ISIS’s defeat at face value. The threat of an ISIS resurgence continues to haunt the people of northeast Syria, as well as Russia and countries across the Middle East and Europe, all of which fear that this part of Syria could once again become a safe haven for global terrorists.
The grievances and political dynamics that created fertile ground for the group’s rise to power in mid-2014 have not been meaningfully addressed. A potential ISIS comeback in northeast Syria could pose one of the gravest threats to global security in 2020.