On January 16, the Islamic State (IS) claimed an attack on the Syrian city of Manbij that killed fourteen. This comes only one month after officials from the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on December 14 that they had ousted the terrorist group from in Hajin, its last military stronghold in Syria. As shown by this incident, IS remains capable of launching attacks in the Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces in Syria, and around Kirkuk in Iraq, particularly in the governorates of Salahuddin and Diyala. In both countries, the Islamic State is surviving for now by exploiting the instability and lawlessness within disputed territories with deep Arab-Kurdish rivalries, unresolved local grievances, and conflicting security agendas.
While not all attacks in Syria and Iraq are reported, the organization’s resilience is evident in continued attacks throughout the Euphrates Valley. On December 13, Kurdish news site Rudaw reported that in one month alone, IS attacked villages in Iraq’s disputed Khanaqin district over 143 times, forcing villagers to flee their homes. A day later, the Iraqi Federal Police, amid a resurgence of IS activity, announced they had dismantled 50 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the Kirkuk area. These reports reflect a noticeable increase in IS attacks in the particularly vulnerable disputed regions of Kirkuk and Khanaqin over the past year. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has long laid claim to the two regions, which are home to a large Kurdish population, although Baghdad has strongly resisted the Kurdish annexation push, particularly of oil-rich Kirkuk. In October 2017, the central government used the Kurdish independence referendum as an excuse to reclaim the disputed territories from Kurdish parties’ control, but this has only ramped up local tensions and generated uncertainty over who is in charge of issues such as local security.
Many security forces operate in Kirkuk and Khanaqin, namely the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi federal police, the Iraqi army and affiliated counter-terrorism units, and the controversial Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). This translates into a complex security framework in which there is little coordination, as rivalries disrupt communication between groups. “IS has also been able to exploit the Baghdad–Erbil rivalry,” said a senior official in the Iraqi army, adding that local players turn a blind eye to IS activity when they want to put pressure on their rivals.1 Moreover, the local Sunni population often does not trust local forces, particularly the Shia-majority federal police and the PMU, and is less likely to inform them of IS activity.
The terrorist group also remains active in Syria’s Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. Although IS militants withdrew from Hajin on December 14, attacks are still taking place on a regular basis in Raqqa.2 For instance, the Facebook page “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” reported on January 9 that IS had attacked the city courthouse and the SDF’s Raqqa base on December 10. IS has also continued to claim assassinations, such as the November 2 shooting of Sheikh Bashir Faisal Huwaidi from the powerful Afadala clan—one of the biggest in eastern Syria—and the November 27 bombing of the headquarters of the Syria Future Party, an affiliate of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the SDF.
In addition to these attacks, prevailing mistrust means the majority-Arab local population does not cooperate much with majority-Kurdish security services, leaving more room for IS to operate.3 Arab residents of Raqqa complain about what they perceive as Kurdish hegemony over Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.4 Although the local council for the city of Raqqa itself is jointly led by one Kurd and one Arab, locals still feel the Kurds have the upper hand in governing the region more broadly. The links between some Arab tribal figures and IS have similarly increased Kurdish security forces’ mistrust of Arabs.
Various local and regional players see the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the political arm of the SDF, as a direct threat. Turkey has accused it of having links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)—and when it became clear that Hajin would be recaptured from the Islamic State on December 12, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to launch an immediate operation against these Kurdish “terrorists” east of the Euphrates in Syria. And after Donald Trump announced on December 19 that the United States would withdraw troops from Syria, he and Erdoğan agreed to create a safe zone 32 kilometers (21 miles) deep along the Syria–Turkey border that could provide Turkey cover to launch such a campaign. Turkish-backed forces have also advanced toward Manbij, raising prospects for a new conflict to break out over control of the city, currently defended by the Syrian Arab army and the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also refuses to recognize the autonomy of the Kurdish regions, which it sees as a threat to its own sovereignty over northeastern Syria. In March 2017, Assad warned the SDF that he would not hesitate to use force to retake territory under its control. While acknowledging there was room for negotiations, Assad added that if these did not work, “we're going to resort... to liberating those areas by force.” Conflict in the region between the SDF and the regime or Turkey will divert SDF resources that could instead be used against the Islamic State. Furthermore, U.S. airstrikes, weapons, and coordination are currently essential to the battle against IS in the Deir Ezzor region, and the U.S. withdrawal will leave the SDF further exposed to attacks. Even if the Assad regime reached a deal to recognize the DFNS, it has neither the manpower nor the financial resources to oust the Islamic State itself.
Not only are IS cells still operational in the region, the regime is attempting to flip tribal figures who had worked with IS by promising them immunity.5 This adds yet one more set of agendas among the various security players—including the U.S.-backed SDF and Iran-backed, pro-regime militias—and feeds into the security vacuum in northeastern Syria.
These systemic challenges in both Syria and Iraq will help the Islamic State insurgency survive in the medium term. Although it may have faded back into the local-level insurgency it began as, the divides set by complex geopolitical, local, and ethnic grievances continue to give it opportunities to thrive. Further geopolitical shifts—such as Turkish escalation in eastern Syria or a rapid U.S. withdrawal that cuts off assistance and weapons to local allies—would bolster the Islamic State’s position in these border areas even further.
Mona Alami is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and at Trends Research and Advisory. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami.
1. Phone interview with security official, December 2018.
2. Interviews with Raqqa residents, September 2018.
3. Phone interview with Dr. Iyad Karaba, an activist from Deir Ezzor, December 2018.
4. Interview with Raqqa residents, September 2018.
5. Interview with Sheikh Nour Theeeb, Raqqa, September 2018.