U.S. agencies involved in Operation Inherent Resolve, the war against the Islamic State released their latest quarterly report. It focused upon IS’s effort to rebuild in Iraq and Syria. It noted that the group is picking up its operations in Syria while trying to restore its base in Iraq.
The Islamic State is attempting to increase its activities and sow chaos in Iraq and Syria. The Department of Defense estimated that there were 14,000-18,000 IS members left, which included 3,000 foreigners. Those forces are involved in three kinds of operations. One is called sahara, working in the deserts and rural areas. The next is sahwat, which is targeting Sunnis that work with the government, and the last is sawlat that are hit and run attacks. IS is also focusing upon its finances. It has decentralized authority and is telling its commanders that they need to raise their own revenues. That is through time honored techniques such as extorting money and kidnapping for ransom. The loss of all the territory it once ruled has greatly decreased its access to funds, but at the same time its expenses are far lower. The United Nations wrote a report on the Islamic State and found the exact same thing. The organization wants to preserve its core, and get back to its illegal and legal businesses so that it can expand. This is the second time the group has been defeated and had to rebuild so it has plenty of history and more importantly confidence that it can do it again.
IS is becoming more active in Syria. It has carried out attacks in Deir Ez Zur, Raqqa, Homs, and Hasakah. It is hoping to so subversion in areas that it lost. That includes activating cells in the northeast in Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) territory, and exploiting that group’s misgovernment that has led to Arab complaints about its rule. Recruitment is also going on amongst the country’s displaced, especially in places like the al-Hol displacement camp. Syria is far more chaotic than neighboring Iraq. That means there are more opportunities to spread violence, play upon divisions in the country, and find people willing to fight.
The situation is slightly different in Iraq where IS appears to be focused more upon gaining control of territory so that it create safe havens and rebuild its cadres. The group has been carrying out assassinations against officials such as local mukhtars and burning fields. On the one hand it wants to show that it is everywhere and can eliminate its opponents. On the other, it is using these tactics to drive people out of their villages in rural areas. At the end of 2018 more than 30 mukhtars were killed leading to people to flee around 30 towns. Setting fire to farms is having the same effect. With the people out that allows IS to set up control. The Islamic State has also found holes in the security along the Iraq-Syria border that has allowed it to freely move men and material between the two countries. That has increased the number of fighters in Iraq. The disputed areas in the north is another area the group is exploiting. There are gaps in security between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the central government’s security forces. The Kurds have said they are willing to work with Baghdad, but politicians in the latter are not interested because of their disputes with Irbil. The insurgents are playing upon family and tribal connections to recruit new members. There are more commanders in the country, and its logistics network is stronger. Overall, there is a concerted effort to gain territory via targeted attacks and destroying agriculture. This will give the militants the space to protect its leadership, restore its cadres, and most importantly train them for future operations. This could also explain why the number of attacks is currently so low in Iraq. It’s violence is concentrated in Syria right now, while in Iraq it is shoring up its base.
The report also commented upon the continued problems with the Iraqi forces (ISF). The army, police and Hashd conduct hundreds of sweeps, but are unable to hold any areas that they clear. IS therefore, moves out when a sweep occurs, and then moves back in after it is over just as it used to do with the Americans. That means the government operations have no real effect. The lack of coordination between the different forces such as between the ISF and Peshmerga, is offering more opportunities. The ISF continued to have problems with their reconnaissance assets. The Iraqis have always had issues with maintenance going back decades. That means not only are the vast majority of its drones out of service, but there was a 50% drop in its planes operating as well. The U.S. withdrawal in Syria has also led to a reduction in the amount of intelligence going to the Iraqis. That is a huge loss because this is not a field that the ISF excels in. Previous reports for example have noted how the ISF uses its drones to monitor its own forces rathe rather than IS, that the various agencies and forces do not share information, that there are not enough intelligence officers, and other issues. The ISF’s situation is just another factor that is helping the Islamic State. The Iraqis inability to control territory, to cooperate, and the reduction in U.S. support means there are more chances for the militants to find areas it can assert authority over. The report also highlights how much more work the Americans and their coalition partners have in training and advising the Iraqis to turn them into an effective counterinsurgency force. This is a long term plan, while it looks like IS is working on a faster timeline.
Lead Inspector General, “Operation Inherent Resolve, Lead Inspector General Report To The United States Congress,” 4/1/19