Four years ago, the international community celebrated the defeat of ISIS at Baghuz, Deir-ez-Zor. After years of brutal fighting, the so-called caliphate was destroyed. However, for the people of North and East Syria, the threat presented by ISIS has never truly left. Rather, it moved underground.
ISIS has operated as an insurgency ever since its territorial defeat. This insurgency, despite being active on a daily basis in fundraising, assassinations, and bombings, has been prevented from spiraling out of control largely by our SDF forces with the direct support from the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The terrorist organization’s cells are dismantled every week through hard military work.
Nonetheless, the worst fears of the people of NES were realized in January of this year, when ISIS launched their largest and most sophisticated attack since Baghuz’ liberation, targeting the al-Sina’a Prison in Hasakah, where thousands of ISIS prisoners have been held since their capture. After days of heavy street fighting, the SDF, with jets and special forces from the international coalition, managed to regain control of the prison and the surrounding neighborhoods. Thousands were displaced, the prison was left in ruins, and 121 SDF personnel had been killed. In the end, ISIS did not succeed, thanks to the sacrifices of the SDF and support from the international coalition.
This attack was a wake-up call to the entire world that ISIS still exists as a centralized organization and has the capacity to conduct large-scale attacks that threaten the stability of the entire US-allied Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and the region it governs.
The issue of ISIS is not simply a military one. ISIS will not be defeated by force of arms alone. While the efforts to dismantle ISIS cells must continue, the issues of accountability and economic crisis must be addressed as well.
With the international community largely ignoring the issues of foreign ISIS fighters and the staggering number of ISIS-affiliated individuals that are trapped in AANES-run facilities, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria has been left with an immense burden that it simply cannot afford. Tens of thousands of dangerous ISIS members are trapped in legal limbo in North and East Syria, with very few attempts by the international community to form tribunals or repatriate fighters to put them on trial in their own courts.
The UN itself has been warning that al-Hawl Camp, with over 50,000 ISIS-affiliated inhabitants, is a “ticking time bomb.” Recently, there have been several attacks against the personnel working in the camp, both those working for the security forces and NGOs.
The economic crisis in the region has likewise presented ISIS opportunities to survive. The poverty rate in North and East Syria has reached 90 percent, and unemployment, especially among youth, is extremely high. Infrastructure remains destroyed or damaged. The devaluation of the Syrian lira has greatly lessened the purchasing power of families.
ISIS takes advantage of these factors, which are especially present in Deir-ez-Zor, and offers people money to work for them. The lack of opportunity means that many who would otherwise never even consider working for the organization, end up being forced to in order to feed their families.
The economic, humanitarian, and security crises in the region are all a result of the continuation of the Syrian crisis, and the lack of an effective solution process to end the war and address the conditions that led to it in the first place. The North and East region, and country as a whole, needs a political solution that is inclusive of all peoples, parties, and provides people autonomy and freedom over their own lives through decentralization, which will guarantee that all Syrians, regardless of faith, ethnicity, or language, are equal as citizens.