by Giorgio Cafiero
The Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has lost 98 percent of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria several years ago, a territory equivalent in size to Great Britain. Yet any doubt that IS remains a threat to the Ba’athist regime in Damascus and Syrian civilians living in government-held areas was eliminated on July 25 when it coordinated a wave of suicide attacks in Syria’s southernmost al-Suwayda governorate. The attacks killed at least 240 civilians, according to local doctors and activists. IS reportedly kidnapped at least 30 Druze—mainly women and children—and decapitated a 19-year-old male hostage on August 5. The group is threatening to kill more of these hostages if its demand that the regime’s offensive in al-Suwayda be halted is not met.
Such vicious violence sends a clear message. Despite military defeats at the hands of a diverse host of state and non-state actors, IS retains the capacity to terrorize Syrians. It is seeking to exploit existing fissures within the country as the regime attempts to reconquer more territory. By sending out this message that it remains a lethal force, IS is also trying to deflect public attention away from its continuing loss of power in Syria.
IS fighters are scattered throughout the southwest, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where they are under bombardment by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Russia’s military, in addition to eastern Syria. IS does not constitute an existential threat to the Syrian regime. Yet by targeting the Druze, who are concentrated in al-Suwayda governorate, IS might succeed in creating a greater wedge between this religious minority group and the regime, with the former losing confidence in the latter to provide protection in territory that Assad’s forces took back from rebel factions.
Ultimately, the gravest threat that IS poses to the regime is its ability to undermine the narrative that forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are winding down the Syrian conflict through their military conquests. Moreover, if IS wages attacks in areas where the Russians brokered agreements with local rebel groups to disarm in exchange for protection, the extremist force will undermine Moscow’s ability to earn the trust of factions from the opposition that the Kremlin seeks to bring into a settlement with the Assad regime.
Unfortunately, the failure of the various parties to bring Syria’s seven-year conflict to an end will leave IS with opportunities to continue exploiting power vacuums on the ground to reinsert itself into the country’s crisis. As the SAA and its allies continue relying on tactics of brute force to reconquer more territory, the regime is determined to wipe out remaining bastions of armed resistance. Whether the regime can establish security in these areas that Damascus officials consider to be “liberated” will largely depend on Assad brokering settlements with various rebel groups that share the regime’s interest in preventing IS from returning to power.
As of now, Assad is not willing to make the concessions to such groups that would make them satisfied with an agreement that entails them falling in line with the regime. Instead, the Syrian president feels emboldened by recent victories in eastern Ghouta, Homs, and much of Daraa and Quneitra, and the SAA is expected to wage an offensive to retake Idlib from Turkish-backed rebel forces.
In pursuit of a military solution that secures short-term triumphs on the ground, Damascus is failing to prod Syria’s internal actors and outside players toward a lasting political solution. Without such a political solution, Syria is guaranteed a destabilized future, perhaps as a failed state for the long term. If the regime does not earn greater confidence from Syrians in territories previously held by rebel groups, local communities will not see Assad’s forces as capable of providing them protection and basic services. More terror waged by IS in government-controlled areas will increase this trust deficit and challenge the regime to consolidate its gains. Although the SAA is achieving major victories over armed opposition factions, the acts of IS violence across the al-Suwayda governorate on July 25 revealed the fragility of the Damascus regime.