The Platform

Aleppo, Syria in 2017. (Mohammad Bash)

The demise of ISIS was greatly exaggerated.

Once boasting a population of 10 million people within its borders, stretching across Iraq and Syria, the ISIS caliphate held major towns, cities, oil fields, factories, and dams, covering an area roughly the size of Britain.

Although now a mere shadow of its former self, ISIS remains a potent force, with Western analysts increasingly underestimating its threat. Despite the extinguishing of its physical caliphate, the extremist group still maintains thousands of fighters in Syria, pivoting away from holding territory to pursuing an all-out insurgency.

The shift back to an insurgency strategy akin to its early tactics in Iraq, has seen ISIS employ small, well-armed militant groups on motorcycles or pickup trucks, conducting hit-and-run attacks and using heavy weaponry on occasion. Their attacks range from distant shootings to scare away military patrols to targeted assaults aimed at creating fear and instability.

Resilient and actively operating in the Syrian countryside, ISIS has retained its top leadership within Syrian territory. The caliphs’ operations primarily center around Syria and Turkey’s border regions, as they attempt to remain anonymous while providing broad guidance through online messages, delegating day-to-day operations in Syria to a core group of militants.

Operating on two levels, ISIS utilizes a core group of militants executing complex attacks directed by leadership, while a larger set of decentralized cells carry out smaller, more frequent raids, intimidating the public and collecting funds. The group has established communication and transit networks linking various regions, assigning specific roles to cells in each area, all while preparing to regain overt territorial control when conditions allow.

Syrian territory is divided into four zones of influence, each used in distinct ways by ISIS. From its rear base in Badia, it trains new recruits, gathers funds, and supplies in the northeast, and maintains hideouts for mid-level and senior commanders in the north and northwest. Central and northeastern Syria’s insurgencies are interconnected, allowing the group to shift resources and personnel based on its objectives and the vulnerabilities of its foes.

Approximately 10,000 fighters and mid-level leaders of ISIS are currently imprisoned in Syria, presenting an opportunity for the group to replenish its depleted ranks by freeing these experienced fighters. Several prison breaks have already been attempted, highlighting the vulnerability of makeshift prisons manned by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). A potential Turkish invasion of Kurdish territories in Syria could further exacerbate the situation, diverting SDF’s attention and resources away from anti-ISIS operations, and giving ISIS the chance to rebuild its strength and carry out attacks.

To effectively combat the highly adaptive ISIS, a hybrid approach is necessary. Three main areas of focus should be emphasized: military defeat to drive ISIS from its last remaining pockets of territory in Syria’s far east, a political settlement to bring stability, and most importantly, eradicating the appeal of ISIS’s extremist ideology to prevent recruitment and resource gathering. While an ideological defeat may be more challenging, it offers a long-term solution by addressing the root causes of radical ideologies.

By remaining vigilant and pursuing a comprehensive strategy, the international community can work towards fully defeating the persistent threat of ISIS in Syria.

Manish Rai is a geopolitical analyst and columnist for the Middle East and Af-Pak region and the editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround (VA). He has done reporting from Jordon, Iran, and Afghanistan. His work has been quoted in the British Parliament.