Thought to be dwindling in its presence, the Islamic State (IS) is rising again in Syria and Iraq. Recent months have witnessed numerous attacks against civilians and government forces. Most recently, on February 9th, more than two dozen pro-Assad fighters were killed in a firefight in Syria’s eastern desert province, Deir ez-Zor, near the city of al-Mayadeen. Members of the IS Sharia courts inside the al-Hol refugee camp, home to more than 60,000 Syrians, are suspected of initiating more than 18 killings -almost half of which were beheadings- since the start of the new year. The Syrian Democratic Forces with their Russian counterparts are having trouble maintaining security as the IS holds significant influence inside al-Hol. Reports suggest more than half of al-Hol’s residents are children 12 years of age and younger, and many of them are being indoctrinated and prepared by IS members inside the camp to become IS fighters. Some of the camp’s detainees view al-Hol as the “caliphate’s final remnant.”
Last month, two suicide bombers detonated their vests at a crowded market in Baghdad killing at least 32 and injuring more than 110.The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks; this was the first suicide attack in Baghdad in almost two years. Additional IS attacks targeted an Iranian-backed Shia militia base, killing almost 20 fighters. Kurdish officials are concerned regarding a growing number of new IS fighters arriving in Iraq across the Syrian border. Reports suggest the attacks launched in Iraq are of a larger scale than those during the group’s 2014 height.
A US military spokesman claims the Islamic State is unable to “sustainably occupy territory” in Iraq and Syria. However, a string of attacks over recent weeks suggests the Islamic State is growing in numbers and improving their capabilities to plan and launch attacks. The Islamic State has found a significant security vacuum to exploit due in part to the inability of the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders to reach an agreement on the governance and security of disputed territories. Although the Islamic State no longer gains and occupies territory as it did in 2014, the group is still able to severely disrupt government and military operations in Iraq and Syria through its insurgent and terrorist tactics. US military officials have reported US attention has once again turned toward IS in Syria and away from its primary mission of securing Syria’s oil fields. Given this information, the threat of the IS appears to be at its highest point in recent years.
In January, the US conducted an operation that killed IS’s top leader in Iraq. This may present good news on the surface, but as has been seen with the killings of other influential IS figures such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State is uniquely adept at quickly replacing its leadership and continuing operations without disruptions. Therefore, it is unlikely that the US operation will have any impact on the ability of the IS to continue launching attacks.
In the near term, it is highly likely the violence propagated by IS in Iraq and Syria will continue. It is possible to stem the IS’s resurging influence with joint intervention from American, Kurdish, Iraqi, Russian, and Syrian forces. The uncoordinated security efforts will continue with diplomatic relations of these countries being less than amicable, ensuring the IS will continue to exploit the security vacuum.