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The Islamic State (IS) is nominally under attack now in its twin capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. This is necessary task, of course, but, as I’ve written repeatedly over the last few months, clearing IS from its urban centres is not sufficient. IS lost its overt urban holdings once before and nonetheless rebuilt in the deserts between 2008 and 2013, rising again to seize increasingly-large tracts of territory that were eventually declared a caliphate. IS was able to do this because of the success of its long-term method of war-making, and political changes in Baghdad—toward greater sectarianism and authoritarianism—that gave it more space to manoeuvre. The flaws in the strategy and partners the U.S.-led international Coalition have chosen to eliminate IS are creating a situation in which what will be called “victory” is really the resetting of the cycle. More evidence of this has recently come to the fore.
Preparing for the Fall
IS’s propaganda over the last year, particularly a speech in May by Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani), the caliph’s deputy and the organization’s official spokesman who was killed in August, has been preparing IS supporters for a time of hardship. But this messaging has also emphasized that the coming travails will purify the flock, exposing those who are not truly committed to the cause, and open the way to a glory that is pre-ordained by god.
IS’s propaganda can be interpreted merely as offering consolation within the confines of a cult, given that IS has lost more than half of its statelet and is on the way to losing the rest. It cannot be dismissed so easily, however. IS is working from the thesis of past as prologue—and there are few more reliable indicators of the future, which is notoriously difficult to predict.
IS has waged revolutionary warfare on the old model, able to move between insurgency and governance, and intended as a long-term project that draws communities into “a basic level of collaboration” through a mixture of inducement and terror. This means that military setbacks are much less important to it than political legitimacy.
Unfortunately, the Coalition’s efforts against IS are playing into this dynamic by deputizing partners on the ground that are rejected by local communities, both as alien occupiers and because of their conduct. The failure to do anything about the total devastation inflicted on Aleppo by the pro-Assad coalition has also fed into IS’s message of a global conspiracy against Sunnis against which they are the only barrier. This narrative also allows IS to mobilize supporters abroad to “punish” Coalition states.
The Final Stronghold
Explaining what is to come for IS after it is forced from overt control of the cities, the phrase “retreat into the desert” (inhiyaz ila al-sahra) has become increasingly common, and the area where this desert is located is increasingly evident: what IS calls Wilayat al-Furat, the Euphrates Province. This Province is the only one of IS’s administrative cantons that encompasses Iraq and Syria, covering the north-western parts of Anbar Province and eastern Deir Ezzor Province.
IS still holds fragments of nine of Syria’s fourteen provinces. Outside of Raqqa Province, the most significant city IS rules is al-Bab in eastern Aleppo Province. While IS holds an impressive percentage of Homs, the loss of Palmyra leaves it holding little urban and populated territory in the province. The Kurdish PYD holds a section of Deir Ezzor in the north around Abu Khashab and there is a a regime-controlled pocket on the western side of Deir Ezzor City, containing al-Mahash oil field, several Army bases, and the airbase. These exceptions aside, IS holds everything from al-Bukamal to Mayadeen, all the way up to al-Kibar. Deir Ezzor is the last province in Syria that IS holds almost entirely.
From this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
The militants are regrouping in Deir Ezzor because of its economic and strategic importance as a hub of oil and agriculture, according to Western officials and current and former Islamic State fighters. With the group’s survival at stake, its financial needs outweigh the symbolism of holding Raqqa.
“The red line is where the oil and the resources exist, it will be protected as much as possible. It’s not important where Islamic State is located—we proved that we can come back anywhere, anytime,” an Islamic State commander said in a Skype interview. “But places like Deir Ezzor are irreplaceable.” …
The move to Deir Ezzor reflects the group’s evolution, according to the commander. Islamic State can withdraw from cities yet still torment residents with suicide bombings and other disruptive attacks. …
“My concern is that we’re not really thinking about Deir Ezzor, it’s on no one’s radar,” said a Western diplomat based in the Middle East whose country is part of the U.S.-led coalition. “It’s a ‘later’ problem for the coalition.” …
Islamic State’s main points of control in the province are the small border city of al-Bukamal and nearby al-Mayadeen, on the Euphrates River near the al-Ward, al-Tanak and al-Omar oil fields, which hold Syria’s most significant reserves. Islamic State generated as much as $500 million in revenue from oil sales in 2015 … with much of that oil coming from Syria. …
Deir Ezzour is also significant because Islamic State has used it to store crude chemical weapons it has manufactured, according to recent midlevel defectors.
Some of these issues are already being worked on. The Coalition has exerted significant resources to dismantling IS’s chemical weapons infrastructure in advance of the Mosul offensive. Turkey’s intervention in Syria has cut off IS’s land-access to the outside world; in tandem with the Coalition airstrikes this has somewhat degraded IS’s oil revenue. The limitations of this strategy lie in the fact that, contrary to Russian propaganda, Turkey as a state does not trade with IS and IS’s trade through Turkey was much overstated. In reality, IS’s main customer is in-theatre—namely the Assad regime, mediated by Kremlin-connected businessmen and entities.
That Wilayat al-Furat would become the locus of IS when it returns to “paper state” status is not surprising.
A Long-time Jihadi Base
In October, Hassan Hassan, the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, argued that “Wilayat al-Furat … and remote areas like it are potential hide-outs for senior [IS] members—if they are not there already.” IS’s propaganda output in the last week would appear to confirm that this process is underway, but there are hints that this began some time ago. The U.S. struck down Fathi al-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf al-Iraqi), often described as IS’s “oil minister,” in a raid into Deir Ezzor in May 2015. In March 2016, IS’s then-number two, Abdurrahman al-Qaduli (Abu Ali al-Anbari) was killed in a U.S. raid as he tried to cross the border. While it is believed Ibrahim al-Badri, the infamous Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spent much of 2015 moving about northern Iraq, west of Mosul, even then there were sightings of him at al-Bukamal. And that town elucidates the deep roots IS has in eastern Syria—and the Assad regime’s role in erecting this infrastructure.
Beginning before the U.S.-led invasion, the military-intelligence services of Assad’s regime were facilitating the movement of jihadists into Iraq to frustrate the stability of that country in the aftermath of Saddam Husayn. One man Assad bussed over the border was Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), currently the leader of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), al-Qaeda’s rebranded presence in Syria. For the next eight years of the U.S. and Allied presence in Iraq, Assad would provide IS’s predecessor organization with a hinterland, training camps, medical care, and foreign recruits, among other things. Hundreds of Western soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians would now be alive had Assad not supported IS’s campaign.
IS’s presence in eastern Syria was becoming visible in the late 2000s. When the uprising came to Syria in 2011, it was no surprise that these networks “flipped,” not least because the Assad regime willed such an outcome. The regime released IS veterans from its prisons, inflamed sectarianism, and left IS to grow, while focusing its firepower on peaceful demonstrators and later mainstream armed oppositionists. Assad’s intention all along was to leave the Syrian population and the world a binary choice—the dictator or a jihadi-salafist takeover—and the networks IS had in the east that Assad had overseen for a decade ensured that IS had a head start on everyone else.
The tribes act as the primary glue of the caliphate. It was among the Anbari tribes that IS made their comeback, and IS’s expansion into Syria was enabled in a similar way. (IS also has loyal tribes in Raqqa, who cannot be pulled out of its orbit when the alternative on offer is a Leftist-Kurdish organization.) Many tribes in Anbar are also present in Deir Ezzor, and IS’s long presence there under Assad’s supervision allowed them to recruit—long before 2011. As Hassan and Michael Weiss describe in their book, areas like al-Shuhail became synonymous with Islamic militancy, and tribal relationships shaped the later intra-jihadi fratricide between IS and JFS.
Splitting IS and the tribes is the key to permanently defeating IS in the rural belts, these villages and small towns that provide the real strategic depth to the organization.
The Way Forward
“The international coalition’s current battle plan for Raqqa, focusing on using mostly Kurdish militias to retake majority-Arab territory, inspires little confidence,” writes counterterrorism consultant John Arterbury. Indeed, this policy “could sow seeds for future conflict.” The same is true if the Iranian proxy militias currently stationed around Tal Afar move into eastern Syria once IS withdraws from Mosul. Arterbury documents the fact that—even on the coldest military calculation—the Assad regime simply does not have the capacity to reconquer this area. Which leaves only one option: “the coalition should entice Euphrates river valley tribes and other Sunni Arab opposition forces to push on Deir Ezzor. In other words, they should mimic the 2007 Anbar [Awakening] recipe for success.”
Sweeping IS from Deir Ezzor would not be easy. IS “has already fashioned Deir Ezzor into a fortress,” as Arterbury writes, and as can be seen in the picture above. In June, the New Syrian Army (NSyA), a Pentagon-supported armed group, drawn from Syrian rebels who operated in eastern Syria, who now only fight IS, attempted to take al-Bukamal and to effectively cut the caliphate in half. It turned into a debacle. As so often before, the narrow counterterrorism focus had thwarted U.S. counterterrorism efforts, and while nothing is done to limit the pro-Assad coalition’s ability to commit mass-homicide this dynamic will remain in place.
Still, using local troops who know the terrain and know IS is the way to defeat IS, and as Arterbury notes this would also provide territory on which the Syrian opposition could construct an alternate governing structure—if provided adequate, enduring protection by the U.S. and her allies. If the opposition had this meaningful hand to play in negotiations, the Assad tyranny might be forced to engage in the peace process in something like good faith, which could at long last yield a settlement that ends the bloodshed in Syria and the terrorist menace that the conflict sustains.
 On 17 February 2017, the United States government reported that it had detected the movement of IS administrators and bureaucrats into Deir Ezzor. “A lot of their administrators and bureaucrats now are beginning the process of leaving Raqqa and moving their operations further down river,” Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters. “So they have definitely taken note of the fact that the end is near in Raqqa and we are seeing now an exodus of their leadership.” Davis did not specify how many Islamic State members were leaving or what exact roles they played, but said the withdrawal seemed to be organized and of their non-combatant “support people.” Earlier today, the SDF/PKK announced its intention to isolate Raqqa City from Deir Ezzor.
UPDATE: On 21 April 2017, an American official said that, in February 2017, the Islamic State moved its capital eighty-five miles down the Euphrates River, from Raqqa City to Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor Province, setting up a governing bureaucracy in the city.