Manish Rai

Baghuz Marked Territorial Defeat of IS, But It’s Still a Potent Threat

This year it was the fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Baghuz town in Deir ez-Zor governorate which literally marked the territorial defeat of the Islamic State and its so-called caliphate. In early 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in close partnership with the international coalition started to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and eventually SDF forces took the fight to the areas that were once the terror group’s stronghold. Trapped from the east and the west by the advancing SDF and by the Syrian regime and Russia on the other side of the Euphrates River, the caliphate got confined to the town of Baghuz and surrounding areas. ISIS planned for the last stand and consolidated its most hardened fighters in Baghuz. Facing imminent defeat, the Islamic State resorted to desperate measures like using abducted civilians as human shields and suicide attacks. But even by throwing everything the Islamic State had in the war, they faced a humiliating defeat. The small town of Baghuz soon became to be known around the world as the place where the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fought and lost its final battle, where the vainglory of the “caliphate” finally crumpled in defeat.

The world’s most barbaric terror group once controlled 88,000 sq km (34,000 sq miles) of territory stretching across Syria and neighbouring Iraq. It imposed its brutal rule on almost eight million people, and generated billions of dollars from oil, extortion, robbery, and kidnapping. ISIS created a myth through its gruesome tactics and dismantled the aura of terror it used to control civilians.  The world still remembers very well how ISIS thrived on a “theory of brutality,” spreading fear and violence amongst innocent populations. No city under its control was spared from its barbarity. But this myth was busted when the SDF confronted the Islamic State and showed the world that ISIS is not invincible. The Islamic State is not able to make a comeback in Iraq or Syria yet. The jihadist takfiri group survives as a deadly insurgency in both countries, but one that, compared to its earlier iterations, is weak and geographically circumscribed. Despite the loss of territory, the group is still seen as a major security threat capable of mounting attacks in the region and worldwide.

Despite the end of its territorial caliphate in 2019 and the death of several of its high-level leaders since, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has demonstrated considerable resilience. It continues to operate as a highly active insurgency, particularly in the countryside of Syria. Also, the group’s top leadership still operates from Syrian territory. Presently, ISIS leaders appear mostly to be providing broad guidance through online messages rather than overseeing day to day operations of the organisation in Syria. The group now seems to operate on two levels: the first one consists of a core of militants acting on the leadership’s directives and conducting complex attacks. While the second one is a larger set of decentralised cells carrying out smaller, more frequent raids, intimidating the public and collecting funds. By following this modus operandi, ISIS has ingrained communication and transit networks linking the country’s various regions, and has assigned its cells specific roles in each place and viewed its activities in each area as enhancing those in the others. ISIS is preparing itself to pursue the goal of regaining overt territorial control whenever the conditions allow. There are around 10,000 fighters and mid-level leaders of the Islamic State locked up in prison centers in Syria. Most of them are being held under makeshift prisons manned by the SDF, which has limited resources and constantly face Turkish attacks.

Eastern Syria, which has intensely contested political space, presents an environment that is particularly well-suited to a flexible, adaptive non-state actor like IS. The SDF is the key player in North and Eastern Syria. The Kurdish-dominated SDF has established itself as the West’s main partner in the fight against the Islamic State group and has proven itself to be the most efficient force to curtail Jihadist groups. But this trusted ally of the West is facing constant attacks from the Turkish state in the form of airstrikes, drone strikes and artillery shelling against SDF positions. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is constantly threatening to invade the SDF controlled areas, making the situation even worse. An invasion would overwhelm Kurdish defenses, forcing the SDF, which consists mostly of Kurdish forces, to divert its attention and resources away from anti-ISIS operations and towards fighting invading Turkish forces. If a Turkish invasion does occur, it will provide ISIS with a golden opportunity to rebuild its strength by staging prison breaks and taking advantage of the geopolitical chaos to conduct attacks in the region and beyond. The United States and allies should take some concrete action to prevent President Erdogan from making good on his invasion threats. International diplomatic pressure in the past has been helpful in this regard, but more is needed to curb Turkey’s destructive role in Northeast Syria.

Source- NPA Syria

About the Author
Manish Rai is a columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region; Editor of a geo-political news agency Views Around (VA)
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