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Islamic State still 'global operation,' says Pentagon report

Islamic State leader's killing prompted questions on Turkey's role; our reporting from Idlib, Syria.
Lisa Ferdinando/US Department of Defense via Getty Images

Islamic State ‘entrenched’ in Iraq and Syria

According to the latest Pentagon Inspector General report, the Islamic State "claimed fewer attacks in Iraq and Syria but remained entrenched in remote, rugged areas."

IS also continued to provoke sectarian, ethnic and tribal divisions in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, IS attacks increased in areas disputed between the federal government and the Kurdistan region.

The quarterly report on Operation Inherent Resolve, the name of the US military mission to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria and set conditions for long-term security cooperation, covers the period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021. The report was published on Feb. 8, just five days after the US special forces operation in Idlib province in northern Syria that led to the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

Seven quick takeaways

  • The United States maintains approximately 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria. The US mission in Iraq transitioned from combat to "advising, assisting, and enabling" Iraqi security forces on Dec. 31. 
  • There are 1.2 million internally displaced people and 252,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq (out of a population of 40 million), and 6.8 million IDPs in Syria (out of 17.5 million).
  • IS has "incorporated existing jihadist groups or upstart elements into its global organization, expanding into the Arabian Peninsula, South and Southeast Asia, Eurasia, Turkey, and Africa," providing "the group’s branches with guidance, media support, and funding," which it derives increasingly from criminal activities.
  • Despite prior leadership losses (before the killing of Qurayshi), IS showed “few signs of major fracturing or disaggregation” during the quarter.
  • IS "continued to prioritize freeing its members detained in Iraq and Syria," foreshadowing the massive attack on al-Sinaa prison in Syria on Jan. 20-21. Sultan al-Kanj, Shelly Kittleson reporting from Iraq, Jared Szuba reporting from Washington and Amberin Zaman have scoops and analysis on the jailbreak and its aftermath.
  • Both the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Iraqi military showed improvement in capabilities, but still depend on coalition support for combat and intelligence operations.
  • Concluding its review of Syria policy in December, the Biden administration said it "will continue to focus on core policy priorities." They include the campaign against IS, supporting local cease-fires, expanding humanitarian access into and throughout the country, "pressing for accountability and respect for international law while promoting human rights and nonproliferation, including through the imposition of targeted sanctions, and supporting a political process led by the Syrian people, as envisioned in UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254."

Killing of Qurayhsi leads to questions on Turkish role

US President Joe Biden praised the "essential partnership" of the SDF in carrying out the operation that killed Qurayhsi. He also mentioned the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga.

Conspicuously not mentioned was any Turkish role in the operation, even though "Qurayshi was hiding in a house near the northern Syrian town of Atmeh, a stone’s throw from the border across the Turkish province of Hatay and only a few hundred meters from Turkey’s Bukulmez military outpost, which overlooks the region," writes Fehim Tastekin.

Although the region is out of the control of Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria, "Atmeh and nearby villages can be easily monitored from the military watchtower at Bukulmez outpost," adds Tastekin, and "Given the intelligence leaks that suggest Qurayshi was also relying on a web of couriers to lead the group like his predecessor, Turkey’s failure to identify the suspicious mobility in the region is raising further questions."

"According to Kasim Guler, the alleged IS leader for Turkey whose confessions to the Turkish authorities were leaked to the media last week, [former IS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi had made a decision to use Turkey as a major base."

Other accounts paint a more active and complex picture of Turkish counter-IS operations.

The Pentagon report noted that according to "media accounts," Turkey and Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups "conducted operations against ISIS during the quarter in areas they control" and "Turkish intelligence assisted Iraq in the capture of senior ISIS leader Sami Jasim in northwestern Syria."

Khaled al-Khateb reported from Aleppo less than a week before the Qurayshi operation, "The Turkish-backed Syrian opposition has waged a security campaign against Islamic State cells in Azaz in the northern Aleppo countryside since Jan. 20, leading to the arrest of dozens of IS members and collaborators. The hunt for other members is expected to continue through the confessions of their fellows."

Meanwhile in Idlib

Idlib province, where the operation against Qurayshi took place, is mostly under the control of the "Salvation Government" led by Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda that was designated a terrorist organization in 2018 by the United StatesTurkey, and the UN Security Council.

HTS claims it has cut ties with al-Qaeda and its leader, Mohammed al-Golani, has been on a public relations campaign the past two years to shake the terrorist label and reposition HTS as freedom fighters holding the line against the Syrian government, shedding his robes and ideological rhetoric for Western suits.

Five updates from our regional reporters

  • Residents of displacement camps near the site of the US operation that killed Qurayshi are still traumatized and terrified not only of a possible return by the Islamic State, but also by the US-led coalition, writes Mouneb Taim from Idlib.
  • The continued decline of financial and logistical support hospitals in Idlib is leading to a humanitarian catastrophe, Taim reports.
  • Golani recently offered $1 million to provide heating to displaced families affected by cold winter weather, provoking "widespread controversy and criticism on social media, with activists mocking him for trying to appear as a humanitarian activist instead of a military leader," writes Sultan al-Kanj.
  • HTS has stepped up its arrest campaign against al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din, a rival of HTS in Idlib, Kanj reports.
  • Amid deteriorating conditions in Idlib’s public schools, religious schools have proliferated across the area, reports Mohammed Hardan.