A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Four days after a major attack claimed by the Islamic State in Manbij, Syria killed at least nineteen people, including four Americans, a suicide bomb ripped through a passenger bus in nearby Afrin, causing numerous fatalities. While the nearly eight-years-long war has turned decidedly in the Assad regime's favor, the prevalence of terrorist activity continues to force people from their homes, effectively providing cover for ISIS fighters to escape detection.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) last week revealed that more than two thousand civilians, along with nearly 200 ISIS members embedded among them, fled the Deir ez-Zor region, a former Islamic State stronghold in the country's east. Abdul Rahman, Director of the SOHR, claimed that at least 20,000 people—including ISIS fighters and mercenaries from places such as Iraq and Somalia—have left the area since the beginning of December.
"The Islamic State is moving from that area to another large geographical spot extending from Syria to the desert of Anbar [in Iraq],” Nizar Abd al-Qader, a former Lebanese army general, told The Media Line. At the same time, he continued, ISIS is not totally vacating Syria as there are few forces there standing in the way of its re-emergence.
"They are subject to random military operations but uprooting ISIS completely would take more and is very difficult,” al-Qader stated. In this respect, he predicted that the organizations will continue to pose a significant threat, even as it reverts to guerilla tactics by launching attacks from remote bases and activating sleeper cells inside Syrian residential areas as was the case in Manbij.
Al-Qader also denounced the Trump administration's decision to withdraw militarily from Syria, arguing this would empower ISIS at the expense of the group's most powerful adversary on the ground: namely, the Kurds. "The United States has abandoned them," he asserted, "and they are now vulnerable to Turkish and Syrian threats.”
The American leader has come under tremendous domestic—including from within his own party—and international pressure to reverse course or at the very least slow down what he originally envisioned as a rapid and total pull-out.
Notably, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently warned during a Congressional hearing that a drawdown of U.S. troops would motivate ISIS, adding that, "every American wants the return of our soldiers to their homeland, but I think we all want to make sure we're safe when they come back." “People are scared and escaping whenever there is a chance,” Muhannad, a Syrian activist who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, stressed. "Following the news of the American withdrawal—which has weakened the Kurds in the north—Russia and Turkey are hovering around it." He, too, expressed concern that "ISIS fighters are using the mass displacement to move from one area to another, as people from different villages and towns don’t know each other. This has made it easier for ISIS members to blend in without any complications. Also, many of them have come from different countries around world so there is no specific data in terms of their real names, age… etc,” Muhannad explained.
Ibrahim Haj Ibrahim, a political science instructor at Birzeit University in Ramallah, believes that ISIS' philosophy is alive and well not only in Iraq and Syria but across the Middle East in places like Libya and Yemen. Accordingly, he concluded, "it is impossible to defeat this extremism unless there is a new ideology established in these nations, one that is logical, reasonable and could form the basis of a political system that promotes the interests of the citizens and changes their reality."
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