The Islamic State (ISIS) has begun to rebuild some of its organizational structure, just weeks after its last stronghold in the town of Baghouz in the Deir ez-Zor countryside fell. Today it seems that the ISIS presence, militarily, economically and socially, reflects the gradual erosion of the authority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as part of a stage which could be called, “the days belong to the SDF and nights to ISIS.”
ISIS sleeper cells have started too reappear. During the years it was in control, the organization secretly prepared a security entity ready to operate if it lost direct military control, in order to keep the organization alive and to preserve the possibility of it regaining control if the conditions were right. Assassinations have been witnessed on a near-daily basis in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, primarily against Arab members of the SDF, as well as its civilian employees. It seems that the ISIS strategy is directed at preventing the SDF from penetrating local tribal communities and competing with them for this bloc. It also seems that this terror operation has the aim of getting the area’s residents to believe that the organization is still alive and will return to impose its control again—with the aim of obstructing any attempt to establish a post-ISIS phase. This is the core of the organization’s strategy in the so-called security states.
The organization still maintains military capabilities, with groups trained in light, medium and heavy weapons, with secret bases in large lightly-populated areas, and is entering into a sort of asymmetrical war with its main rivals, the SDF.
The end of the 16th Division
Fears of ISIS returning has been accompanied by the slow erosion of SDF authority. Al-Modon’s sources said that the SDF’s 16th Division, deployed in the eastern Deir ez-Zor countryside, has begun to break up. ISIS cells were able to assassinate the 16th Division commander, known as Abou Jabal, one of the most prominent Arab fighters in the SDF ranks. ISIS targeted Abou Jabal last week with an explosive device that blew up his car in the town of al-Tayyana. As a result, 55 Arab fighters withdrew from the division and returned to their homes, after declaring they’d left the SDF to protect themselves against ISIS revenge attacks.
Abou Qahar, one of the fighters who withdrew, told Al-Modon: “I was subjected to an assassination attempt at the end of May, when I went to the butchers. Three masked men who had been following me raided it, even though I was in civilian clothes, and tried to kill me with knives. I miraculously got away and took refuge at a nearby military point. My comrades and I got weapons and vehicles and searched the whole market, but we didn’t find them. No one dared give us any information about them, just saying they were masked men and they fled somewhere they didn’t know.”
ISIS had been using the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr to remind citizens that they have to pay taxes, in the form of the “zakat” they collect. Al-Modon learned that the last week of Ramadan witnessed organized activity by the organization to collect “zakat” in accordance with pre-prepared figures from traders and property owners in Deir ez-Zor. The organization targeted oil traders who were known to work with the SDF and owners of agricultural property and projects. It sent desert patrols to impose taxes on livestock farmers there.
Those targeted by the collection were forces to pay these amounts or face the threat of assassination, as these civilians are an easy target for militants, so they don’t have any chance to evade or refuse to pay what is imposed on them.
The latest collection process comes in parallel with the assassinations and security and military operations, to restore the “legitimacy” of the group which collapsed after a string of military defeats.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.