ISIS Has Not Been Defeated. It’s Alive and Well in Southern Syria.
While Washington celebrates victory, the Islamic State is regrouping, and the Assad regime is letting it happen.
The world has been celebrating the Islamic State’s defeat since the final battle of Baghouz on March 23. In February, President Donald Trump celebrated the United States’ alleged victory claiming that the group had been “100 percent” defeated. The United States and Britain have meanwhile moved on to debate stripping the citizenship of their nationals who joined the Islamic State. But contrary to Trump’s declaration, the terrorist group has not been vanquished, and it is currently regrouping near my hometown, Suwayda, in southern Syria—an area it has long terrorized while the government of Bashar al-Assad stood by in silent complicity.
On July 24, 2018, I hugged my mother goodbye before she left Chicago to return to Syria by way of Lebanon. Unlike many other Syrian mothers, mine was allowed to come visit her refugee daughter because of her Lebanese citizenship. My mother arrived home in Syria at midnight. Four hours later, the Islamic State attacked, and I lost contact with my family. I followed helplessly on social media as militants went on a door-to-door slaughtering rampage.
During the first three days of the merciless attack on Suwayda, the Syrian army watched silently. Civilians were left on their own to fight with kitchen knives, hunting rifles, and whatever else they had. Some 250 people were killed, 300 wounded, and dozens of women and children were kidnapped within a day. At least one Druze woman was executed in Islamic State custody.
I looked through the lists in horror trying to find family members and friends. In the following days, I learned that they had killed several of my cousins.
The attack on Suwayda was part of an Islamic State “scarecrow strategy,” originally adopted by the Syrian regime in order to make religious minorities submit out of fear of both the Islamic State and the Sunni majority. Before July, the Islamic State was present in three main areas in southern Syria: the Yarmouk Basin in Daraa province, the Lajat area in northeastern Daraa, and the eastern desert of Suwayda province. In July, Syrian troops defeated the group in Yarmouk Basin. Following its defeat, the Islamic State made a deal with the Assad regime and its Iranian allies to be relocated to Suwayda’s eastern desert. My family and friends saw fighters as they were transported by the regime’s green buses.
A month before the July attack, Assad’s troops had evacuated the eastern villages of Suwayda, one of which was Rami, where my aunt lives. Three days before the attack, the Assad regime stripped the people of Suwayda of their weapons, especially the people who resided in the east and northeast. Hours before the attack, the Assad regime cut off the electricity from those villages. These same villages were the first to be attacked before dawn. This is how Assad enabled a massacre in Suwayda so he could claim that minorities needed his regime’s protection.
Suwayda is populated by religious minorities, including Syrian Druze, Christians, and a few Bedouin Sunni tribes. Since 2011, the mainly Druze population of Suwayda has remained on the margins of the war in Syria. They neither revolted when the uprising began nor completely supported Assad. Even though Suwayda remained under Assad’s control, tens of thousands of Druze men refused to join the Syrian army.
The Syrian regime tried and failed multiple times to enlist Druze men in the army. Some of my friends did everything they could to avoid joining Assad’s army; some had to flee, and others stayed under Druze authority, mainly Rijal al-Karama (“men of dignity”), a religious Druze movement that was founded in 2012 by Druze sheikhs to protect all sects in Suwayda from any outsider risk, whether the Islamic State, Assad and his allies, or Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—as well as to protect them against Assad’s troops if they came to draft them.
The regime relied on the Islamic State to terrorize the men of Suwayda into joining the Syrian army. As a result, many Druze felt forced to align themselves with the regime, allowing it to preserve its status as a protector of minorities. This was not the first time the Syrian regime used Islamic extremists to gain support. In 2011, after the uprising began, many extremists were released from the regime’s prisons, and they went on to start and lead multiple extremist groups, including the Islamic State and Jaish al-Islam, both of which kidnapped and killed opposition activists.
A few months after the Suwayda attack, the regime helped release a group of Druze women. In a meeting with the women’s families, Assad explicitly told the families that, because the Syrian army had helped free the women from the Islamic State, the least they could do was urge the men to join the regime’s troops. But the Druze men refused. A former classmate of mine told me that he didn’t want to join Assad’s army because he was not interested in killing another Syrian just so that the president could keep his seat.
After the July attack, the Assad regime claimed to have completely wiped out Islamic State fighters in the Safa hills, in the desert east of Suwayda. However, many locals today are confirming the return of the Islamic State. Local Druze factions in eastern Suwayda recently encountered Islamic State fighters while scouting the area last month.
Multiple sources in the city of Suwayda claimed that Islamic State fighters are being smuggled through the Syrian desert from Baghouz to eastern Suwayda by Iranians who have full control over the route in the desert; some accused Iranian militias of aiding them in exchange for money. According to local news agencies such as I Am a Human Story, the numbers of smuggled fighters have reached “more than 1500, most of them formidably armed.” The local outlet Suwayda24 has also confirmed that the militants are nearby and armed.
These fighters are not only a threat to Syrians; they could pose a threat to the United States, too. There is a U.S. military base located between the Safa hills and the town of Baghouz. Considering the Islamic State’s defeat in Baghouz, the military base is a potential target for retaliation. The Tanf garrison is also close to the Rukban camp. The Syrian regime and Russia believe that the Rukban camp is hosting Islamic State fighters, and they are not the only ones that think so. Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, a Free Syrian Army faction backed by the international coalition, has a presence in the Rukban camp, and it shares the same assessment. However, if a Russian military escalation takes place at Rukban, it could pose a security threat to the U.S. garrison and the displaced civilians who already live in dire conditions in the camp.
It is too early to celebrate victory over the Islamic State. It is regrouping, and the Syrian regime is taking advantage of its re-emergence. Assad’s regime is watching passively as it tears communities apart until they submit to the government and join the Syrian army. If the lives of the Syrian people are not important enough, perhaps the threat to the U.S. military base at Tanf will make policymakers face the reality that the Islamic State is far from gone. It may no longer be an expansionist caliphate, but it is strategically reorganizing itself as an insurgency to terrorize the people of Syria.