Syria: Assessing the Threat of the Islamic State

The flag of Syria
The flag the Syrian Arabic Republic (Credits: anjči from London, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 35 Issue 6
Author: Ahsan Ali

The Syrian civil war, which began in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring, witnessed a multitude of factions vying for control within the country, leading to extensive destruction and the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State. Despite official declarations of victory over the group, it remains a significant national security threat, as evidenced by recent attacks and ongoing insurgent activities.

The economic crisis, coupled with regional instability and the ongoing presence of sleeper cells, fuels the resilience of the Islamic State’s ideology and recruitment efforts.

This report underlines that Syria, in collaboration with its allies, Russia and Iran, must address this persistent threat to prevent further destabilisation and potential spillover into neighbouring Iraq. Additionally, a comprehensive strategy that combines economic recovery, improved security, and counter-radicalisation efforts is necessary to mitigate the ongoing influence of the Islamic State in Syria.

The Islamic State in Syria: Information Background

The Syrian civil war broke out at the edges of 2011 Arab Spring with different factions fighting within Syria backed by their own respective proxy, and more than a million died during the decades conflict.

Syria got embattled by the extremist armed groups that emerged during the chaos within its territories and Iraq, where Islamic State proclaimed caliphate and took the Syria into a leap of faith with mass destruction of property, livelihood, and mass displacement.

Since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself as the caliph of the Islamic State, this organisation ruled Syria and Iraq until the fall of Raqqa and Mosul.

In Syria, thanks to the destabilisation caused by the civil war, every faction attempted to maximise their profits. In this context, the Islamic State was one of the key actors which was significantly involved in local clashes with the Syrian security forces, opposition forces and other non-state actors.

At its peak, the Islamic State controlled 100,000 square kilometres of territory, which was home to over 11 million people. Main state actors from the United States, France, Russia, Iran, and Turkey have intervened in Syria to carve up Islamic State during the time, but as they had their national interests and allies, the carving was limited.

With the country drafted into U.S. sanctions, numerous people out of work had been brainwashed to join Islamic State with destabilising factors for the people of Syria and the already fragile security apparatus of Bashar al-Assad.

The Islamic Satte got into a tussle with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) aka YPG, Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), Russian forces and Iranian-backed militias during the time.

In March 2019 the Joint Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), assisted by Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF), officially defeated the Islamic State at the Battle of Baghuz Fawqani while, in October 2019, a U.S. raid killed Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. Although these significant setbacks, the organisation continued to threaten Syria with sleeper cells, and its ideology still existed in the cities and refugee camps.

On the page, Syria seems to return to normalcy, but in reality, the Islamic State has operated from the Syrian desert since October 2019. The organisation is still a national security threat to Syria and the Syrians and its jihadist propaganda have inspired several terrorist groups and fighters in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

In this context, the Syrian economic situation connected with the neighbouring Lebanon might worsen the local situation. Indeed, in October 2019, because of the Lebanese protest, Damascus could not withdraw its assets (between $20 billion to $42 billion) in in the Lebanese Banks, worsening the cash-strapped economy situation in Syria.

Islamic State’s threat to Syria: Risk Scenario

The war in Syria haven’t been over as Islamic State is still a national security threat within Syria.

On January 20th, 2021, a group affiliated with the Islamic State attacked Kurdish-controlled al-Sina prison, where 3,500 Islamic State fighters were in detention, resulting in nine-day ferocious fights and the death of several terrorists and members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

On July 27th, 2023, Islamic State claimed the attack on the shrine of Bibi Sayeda Zainab in Damascus during Ashura with six casualties on the ground. Similar onslaught was carried in 2016 in a double suicide bombing where 134 people died.

Islamic State continues to be a problem for Syria, where either government-controlled region or opposition-controlled are continuously under attack and the institutional apparatus force is weak.

On the political page, Syria normalised relations to affirm their political power, and holding different dialogues with the Arab countries, which previously isolated Damascus because of the civil conflict.

On August 3rd, 2023, a clash with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) caused the death of the Islamic State Syrian leader Abu Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi. Therefore, Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi took the leadership of the group.

On August 8th, 2023, the Islamic State organised an attack on the city of Raqqa, killing 10 soldiers and pro-government fighters. On August 12th, 2023, the organisation assaulted a Syrian military convoy, killing 33 soldiers in eastern Syria and wounding several others.

Since the beginning of the year, the Islamic State has killed 379 government soldiers, Kurdish fighters and civilians. With their attacks on the government resources, hit-and-run tactics from desert, ambushes, and roadside bombings, Islamic State continued to persistent threat to Syria.

Syrian forces itself are weakened to tackle with the Islamic State and rely on Russia and Iranian-backed militias. Considering Russia’s military involvement in the Ukraine conflict as Iran’s contribution to Palestine because of the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel, Syria might face less support from Moscow and Tehran.

Considering also the economic crisis showed by the protests in Southern Syria on August 17th, 2023, because of economic mismanagement, corruption, state repression, there is the eventuality that the Islamic State can find a fertile ground for its recruitment process by exploiting local disappointment towards the government.


Syria may have to continue military operation in eastern Syria, where the Islamic State has a prominent presence. Since Moscow and Tehran are Damascus’ major allies, both should deal with this terrorist organisation to avoid that the destabilisation will affect also Iraq, where the peace itself is fragile and political instability.

Considering recent attacks, the Syrian government must realise that the Islamic State is still a threat to national security and stability because this organisation has rooted its presence in the Syrian territory.

As though Syria is in sanctions and economic blockade despite a respite of a diplomatic breakthrough with Arab countries, if Damascus will not improve the country’s economic conditions, the Islamic State might use poverty and hunger to recruit more people in the Syrian territory and continue fighting against the central authority.

With hyperinflation, and with limited opportunities, people may fall to the jihadist ideology, join extremist organisations and become fighters capable of inflicting several damages to the Syrian army and institutions.

The government must take military action on the Islamic State jihadists, who hide and work as a recruiter and sleeper agents because they will continue to threaten national security.

To avoid further complications, Damascus should appropriately train its military and government forces to avoid further ambushes as well as develop a stronger intelligence apparatus, which until now has showed its lack of reliability.

It is also advisable that Syrian and Iraqi forces will jointly patrol the border between the Eastern Syrian desert and Western Iraq to increase the regional security level. Sharing intelligence between Syria and Iraq might also support the stabilisation of the area and the contrast against the Islamic State.

Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.

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