A stabilization of the situation in Iraq and Syria is also made difficult by the strengthening of the "Islamic State". A mass outbreak of imprisoned IS fighters could further exacerbate the problem. Scientist Guido Steinberg describes what Germany should do now.
In March 2019, the "Islamic State" (IS) lost the last town it held in eastern Syria, and its leader Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi died in an attack by US special forces in northwest Syria in October. Despite these setbacks, it has become increasingly clear since spring 2020 that IS is gaining strength. Not only the number of attacks increased significantly in the first months of the year, but also their quality.
Back in the underground
After the loss of Mosul, which he claimed to be the capital, in October 2017, the "Islamic State" withdrew to rural areas in northern and western Iraq. It quickly became clear that IS is also a danger as an underground organization. Since 2018, he has drawn attention primarily to murder attacks on loyal individuals in remote villages and attacks on isolated checkpoints. In Syria, due to the disagreement of his opponents, he was able to stay longer in larger locations, but after the defeat in Baghuz in eastern Syria, fighters moved the focus of their activities to the Syrian desert. The number of active fighters remaining in Iraq and Syria is estimated at 4,000 to 6,000.
Since April 2020, the organization has increased the frequency and quality of its activities in both countries. At the beginning of May, she carried out two sensational attacks on security forces in the Iraqi provinces of Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk, which showed that IS feels strong enough to attack more protected, "hard" targets. A similar trend can be observed in Syria. IS operates mainly in the desert west of the Euphrates in the provinces of Deir ez-Zor and Homs, where the Assad regime is in control. In early April, IS fighters attacked the small town of As-Suchna on the important road from Deir ez-Zor to Homs and Damascus and killed several soldiers. In addition, fighting in the area between ISIS and the regime severely damaged facilities in the gas industry.
The corona pandemic is also strengthening IS
The main reason for the strengthening of IS is likely to be the partial withdrawal of US troops from both countries. In Syria, they reduced their presence to only around 500 soldiers who are helping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance led by the Syrian PKK - in the northeast to fight IS. In Iraq, their number is still just over 5,000, but the United States has also reduced its military there. They also withdrew from multiple bases to just two due to repeated missile and mortar attacks by Iranian-controlled militias. They are no longer able to put pressure on IS across the board with the Iraqis.
A second important reason for the strengthening of IS is the corona pandemic. This initially led to the United States and its allies ending or suspending training for the Iraqi military and security forces. The army and police were also used to control curfews or remained at home for prevention, making them no longer available to fight the terrorists. The situation in Syria has not yet changed because the Assad military has been suffering from a shortage of personnel for a long time and most of the units are based in the west of the country - so that IS can operate in its operating areas in the Syrian desert.
Overall, the pandemic in both countries is reinforcing trends that have been in sight for some time. Despite the military defeats of IS, the problems that led to its rise from 2012 onward persist. In Syria, this is the civil war in which the regime is fighting not only the insurgents but also the civilian population in the rebel areas - with the result that ISIS enjoys a lot of approval there. The same applies to Iraq, where the government places the Sunni parts of the country so severely disadvantaged that many residents of the north and northwest prefer IS. The more the effects of the corona pandemic weaken the governments of both countries, the greater the scope for action by the jihadists.
IS also threatens security in Europe
Stabilizing the situation is even further away in both countries than was already the case in 2019. IS may continue to grow, but will have to make up for sustained high losses. This will make the Syrian Kurdish prisons a focal point of events. There are a total of more than 10,000 IS members in custody, including some 2,000 foreign fighters. Should it be possible to liberate even a part of them, this would increase the IS's fighting strength enormously. Since the organization attacked several Iraqi prisons in 2012 and 2013 and freed hundreds of jihadists, it can be assumed that it is also considering similar actions in Syria. In addition, inmates most recently made major attempts to break out in late March and early May 2020.
This situation is also a result of years of refusal by the countries of origin to take back their citizens. This policy is astonishing in that the legal situation dictates a withdrawal and the number of fighters per country is in most cases manageable - in the case of Germans between 20 and 30 men. In addition, the US government asked its allies early to return prisoners to their home countries because there is no safe accommodation capacity in Syria. The Syrian Kurds, who were clearly overwhelmed with this task, also accepted the request. Nevertheless, in most European countries there are no signs that anything will change in their attitudes.
However, the danger of a mass outbreak shows that this is a short-sighted policy. Should larger groups be liberated, they have little choice but to resume armed struggle. This would run counter to German interest in stabilization in Syria and Iraq and could also affect Turkey and other neighboring countries. If the borders to Europe become more permeable after the corona pandemic subsides, this could even affect the security situation in Europe. A withdrawal of the German fighters is therefore more urgent than ever.