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How the Islamic State found a haven in Syrian desert

The Syrian regime and Russian forces are facing a growing threat of the Islamic State, which continues to hold pockets across the desert in central Syria.
Pro-government fighters sit in the back of vehicles brandishing their weapons and flashing the sign for victory in the central Syrian town of Al-Sukhnah, situated in the county's large desert area called the Badiya, on August 13, 2017 as they clear the area after taking control of the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. 
Supported by regime ally Russia, Syria's army has waged a months-long offensive to recapture the vast desert region that stretches from the country's centre to the Iraqi and Jordan

The Islamic State (IS) operations against Syrian regime and pro-Iranian targets have recently intensified, causing additional losses among those forces despite the military operation that Russia launched on Aug. 25 against IS in the Syrian desert, known as Badiya, in central Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sept. 7 that IS “carried out separate attacks and set up ambushes in separate areas of Badiya, over the past week. The organization’s operations included bombings, attacks and ambushes, and were concentrated in al-Shula area west of Deir ez-Zor, the desert of Boukamal to the east of Deir ez-Zor, the Deir ez-Zor-Al-Mayadin road, the Hamima-third station road toward the city of Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs, the Rusafa area in the countryside of Raqqa, the Ithria area in the eastern countryside of Hama and the desert of Sweida.”

Following the killing of a Russian general at the hands of IS, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced Aug. 25 the launch of a military operation against IS in Badiya under the name of “White Desert.”

A Russian military spokesman said in a statement, “The terrorists are impeding the return of social and economic life in Syria, and they are also working to hinder normalization between the local Arab tribes and the authorities [in reference to the Syrian regime]. The United States is the main beneficiary of [IS attacks], using them as a pretext to justify its presence in eastern Syria.”

The Russian general, Vyacheslav Gladkikh, was killed Aug. 18 along with a leader of the National Defense Forces, which is affiliated with the regime, by an improvised explosive device planted by IS in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor province.

Hammam Issa, a media activist from the countryside of Aleppo in the know of IS operations, told Al-Monitor, “The Syrian desert extends over an area of ​​about 80,000 square kilometers [31,000 square miles], which gives the organization the ability to catch the regime forces off guard as they move to and from Deir ez-Zor province in the far east of Syria through the Raqqa desert. This desert extends to the countryside of Suwayda, the countryside of Damascus, the countryside of Hama and Homs in the west, and reaches the Syrian-Iraqi border in the east. It also extends to the Syrian-Jordanian border in the south and the outskirts of the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in the north.”

He said that Russia is using Liwa al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigade) as a spearhead in the fight against IS in Badiya to fill the void left by the National Defense Forces after they withdrew from the confrontation against IS in the area due to the losses incurred in the past months. The Russian forces are now providing support to Liwa al-Quds to control the security and military situation in the Syrian desert, he explained.

Liwa al-Quds, formed in 2013, is mainly made up of Palestinian fighters fighting alongside Syrian regime forces. 

Liwa al-Quds, according to Issa, transferred pro-regime military groups from Aleppo and Idlib countryside to Badiya to take part in operations against IS.

In this context, Suhaib Abdul-Razzaq Jaber, a journalist from Deir ez-Zor countryside, told Al-Monitor, “IS has turned Badiya into a black hole that swallows regime soldiers. All the parties controlling the area [the regime forces, Russia, Iran and the Kurdish forces] know very well that the organization still has a last enclave in the desert. And since 2017, they [the parties] have been aware of the size of this enclave and the number of IS elements present therein.”

He added, “They [the Syrian regime, Kurdish forces, Russia and Iran] are the ones who allowed the organization to flee toward the desert and get stationed in this last enclave, in al-Maizilah and Sabaa Biyar and their surroundings. The organization’s recent moves are only normal since it is a terrorist organization. But what is more of a terrorist act is having allowed this terrorist organization to survive while it targeted civilians that year [in reference to the July 2018 killing of hundreds in Suwayda] and civilians fleeing the 'virtual' war between IS and [President Bashar al-] Assad.”

Jaber noted that IS moves easily in the desert, where it is easy to hide, especially at night. IS militants carry out individual attacks, making it hard to be targeted by airstrikes, he added, and this has helped the organization to survive in its last enclave, by also carrying out surprise attacks before disappearing.

“Some leaders of Assad’s militias are also dealing with IS to smuggle people and goods. The two parties have even covered for each other under a truce or an agreement between them. This truce or agreement may have happened after a number of leaders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps visited military bases in Badiya, close to IS pockets, including Qasem Soleimani in 2019 and the Iranian minister of defense [in 2018],” Jaber added.

He said the reason Russia lost some of its officers at the hands of IS is that these officers are not trained to conduct military operations in desert areas. Also, he added, Russian officers do not know the places where IS planted mines.

The journalist ruled out that IS would launch attacks with the aim of controlling some cities, such as the city of al-Sukhna, the second-largest city in Badiya after Palmyra. However, he said, the organization launches on a weekly basis attacks in the outskirts of the main cities such as Abu Kamal, al-Mayadin, al-Ashara, al-Quriah, al-Sukhna, Palmyra, al-Shula and Kobajjep, among others.

Asked about the regime forces’ failure to eliminate IS in Badiya, Jaber said, “All the regime’s operations are failing because its forces are drained. It does not have the human, technical or material capabilities to fight this battle, and its main dependence is on Western powers that are inexperienced in fighting the organization under such circumstances.”

Abd al-Rahman al-Asef, a former jihadist leader and expert on jihadist groups, told Al-Monitor, “The most important factor contributing to the organization’s steadfastness is its organizational structure. Add to this its conduct of operations based on a well-thought-out strategy. Russia will continue to be defeated by IS so long as it is unaware of the organization’s strategy. Meanwhile, Russia is inflating IS losses in order to portray itself as fighting terrorism at a time when the United States has failed to seriously deal with terrorism. All this propaganda is to justify its presence in Syria and its support for the regime’s killing of Syrians. After all, Russia came to Syria to support Assad, not to fight terrorism.”

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