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Jihadi groups in balkanised Syria have found the perfect place to train for global attacks

ISIS Caliphate may be over, but its ideology lives in Syria. And that helps jihadi groups recruit, thrive and plan attacks from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh.

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As conflict enters its ninth year in Syria, let us take look at how a failed Arab Spring, geopolitics and competing jihad have made Syria a base for global violence. And even though the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham –ISIS – control over the country has shrunk, Syria hasn’t seen the end of terrorism yet.

The Syrian Spring, which started in March 2011, led to the balkanisation of Syria – making it a jihadi cauldron. It is now a theatre for radicalisation and actual training of fighters – under anyone from al-Qaeda (AQ) to ISIS networks – who can carry out attacks anywhere in the world, without it being traced back to Syria.

Apart from the Bashar al-Assad regime, other states, extremists and violent jihadis exercise control over different parts of Syria and are fighting for greater influence. While the current military campaign of the Assad regime in the northern province of Idlib and the threat of imminent military campaign of Turkey in north-eastern parts of Syria under the control of US led-Syrian Democratic Force add to the complexities, both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda continue to rebuild their infrastructure and fighting strengths on the ground.

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A jihadi cauldron and birth of ISIS

The US withdrew its troops from Iraq in December 2011, claiming success in decimating the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and having killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan a few months earlier. It was claimed that a severely weakened AQI of about 700 cadres, under the leadership of Abu Bakr Baghdadi (current emir of ISIS), was no match for the Iraqi government, which was then led by pro-west PM Nouri al-Maliki.

However, before December 2011, AQI’s Syrian branch, Al Nusrah Front (ANF), led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani had already dispatched hundreds of cadres to Syria to grab territory and sources of funding, including oil fields. The ANF soon initiated suicide attacks and aligned with other armed groups against Assad, including with al-Qaeda affiliate, Ahrar-al-Sham. These groups, also loosely referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were actively supported by regional players to further their geopolitical interests in Syria.

In April 2013, the AQI morphed into ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. The ISIS declared that it had subsumed the Al Nusrah Front, gaining significant domination across 10 of the 14 governorates of Syria within a few months. On 29 June 2014, the ISIS declared the Caliphate, stretching across large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

However, under al-Qaeda emir Ayman Al Zawahiri, ANF proclaimed itself independent of the ISIS in Syria. Many top al-Qaeda leaders, including those of the Khorasan group, shifted to Syria, but Zawahiri and his core team continued to operate from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, drawing on tactical advantage of terrain and patronage. Eventually, the Free Syrian Army disintegrated and its sub-groups/fighters joined ISIS or al-Qaeda networks.

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Caliphate gone, ideology survives

Initially, the ISIS, which attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters and many more Syrians and Iraqis, pushed ANF off the battlefield in many parts of Syria. The ISIS could do so as it was far more aggressive and relentless in grabbing territory. However, within months, ANF-led rebel groups were seen confining their operations to areas outside the Caliphate in Syria. Only their low-level fighters were seen clashing for local influence.

As the Caliphate became a global challenge, the US-led Coalition launched Operation Inherent Resolve in October 2014, taking four and a half years to announce the decimation of ISIS on 23 March 2019, after capturing Baghouz in north-eastern Syria. However, peace did not return to Syria and areas vacated by the ISIS are now controlled by four key players, the US-led SDF (largely Syrian Kurds and some Arabs); the Assad Regime; Turkey-led rebels; and AQ-affiliate in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) network – successor of ANF, with 15-20,000 armed cadres.

The physical Caliphate is gone, but the ideology (virtual Caliphate) and the Caliph have survived, and so have 25-30,000 cadres. Through the period of fight for territory, several thousand local fighters (Iraqis and Syrians) melted into the populations as sleeper cells and are now mounting attacks in Iraq and Syria. The sleeper cells, for now, may be focussed on Iraq and Syria. However, the group is rebuilding its online propaganda fast, mounting spectacular global attacks, including in the PhilippinesIndonesia and Sri Lanka, and has already attracted fresh bayat of more than 12 groups across as many countries. Within two months of declaring defeat of ISIS in Baghouz, US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition, James Jeffrey, testifying before House Committee on Foreign Affairs, accepted that ISIL remained a significant threat to the United States, to the region, and to its allies and partners.

Also read: Why ISIS bombed Kabul wedding and how it’s eyeing the Afghan peace talks

Al-Qaeda build-up

Although the Caliphate lost territory, the fight against the Caliphate also created an opportunity for the Zawahiri led-AQ network in Syria to not only survive, but also grab territory. Currently, much of the province of Idlib, parts of Hama and Latakia, are under the control of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or HTS network – that has been designated as an al-Qaeda affiliate by the US and the United Nations.

The HTS is running a government for areas under its control, even though they don’t call it a Caliphate or Islamic State. For tactical reasons, the HTS, in its propaganda, is proclaiming a break up with al-Qaeda fighters, especially the foreign ones. In early 2018, the foreign fighters with the AQ/HTS created another group – the Huras al-Din (HD). This group is now carrying out regular propaganda as an al-Qaeda branch through videos and even naming camps after slain AQ leaders, including ‘legendary’ Sheikh Abu Firas al-Suri. The HTS and its backers are positioning the group as a legitimate local group and claiming to have no connection with any transnational jihadi groups, much like the Afghan Taliban are trying to do.

Also read: What’s different about the Sri Lanka attacks? The rise of third party terrorism

Turkey’s military campaign

Turkey, too, has gained control/influence over key border areas within Syria with the help of local rebel and radical groups, by claiming the fig leaf of protecting its own borders; preventing migration of Syrians into Europe; and containing Kurdish power (SDF) who are described as cadres of terrorist group for Turkey, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). In north-western Syria, Turkey-supported networks have already pushed the SDF out of Afrin, even though Kurds continue to be the most loyal foot soldiers for the US-led Coalition in Syria.

The Assad regime has consolidated its position over the vast territory with the help of Russian air power and ground support from Iran. The regime now controls large swathes of desert on the western side of River Euphrates, up to the Iraqi border. The regime is aggressively campaigning against HTS in Idlib, Hama and bordering areas, which, in turn, is hitting back on military bases in Syria, including with suicide drones.

Also read: Syria exiled several archaeologists, I am one of them & this is what war is costing us

A global hotspot

The geostrategic dynamics between Russia- and US-led alliances in Syria, complexities of relationships of jihadi networks and their supporters have led to informal balkanisation of Syria.

The al-Qaeda network in Syria still hosts jihadis of multiple origins, including Chechens, Tunisians, Moroccans, Europeans, Uyghurs, Afghans and Pakistanis. Thousands of ISIS fighters and families, including sizeable number of foreigners, are in custody in Syria and Iraq, creating potential for the inevitable growth of ‘revenge jihad’, either under the AQ or ISIS banner.

The recent, partial strategic alignment of Turkey and Russia in Syria; steadfast support of Iran and Russia to the Assad regime; partial withdrawal of US troops from the theatre; restive, underground Sunni insurgency in Iraq; and consolidation of Kurds across Syria as well as in Iraq, has made Syria a potent theatre for destructive geopolitics. The balkanisation of Syria has already created a dangerous cauldron of jihad, whose impact on regional and global security is emerging.

In recent months, ISIS branches in South Asia have again become visible, with IS Khorasan Province (ISKP) claiming deadly attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and carrying out active online propaganda on Kashmir. The jihadis in Bangladesh are the latest in the series of several groups across the world pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi since June 2019. The jihadis in Bangladesh have claimed at least three attacks after a long lull.

The online campaigns of both ISKP and AQ groups, pegged on South Asia, have picked up pace in the last few weeks and could be indicative of radicalisation and/or recruitment phase. A few weeks ago, al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al Zawahiri posted an online video, calling for jihad in Kashmir. Now ISIS, too, has called for jihad on the issue of Kashmir as well as has specifically exhorted attacks in the Arabian Peninsula on Hindu officials, businessmen, religious figures and other targets.

The terror infrastructure within a ‘balkanised’ Syria will continue to present a ready-to-use theatre for further radicalisation and training of local and global cadres of both al-Qaeda and ISIS networks. These cadres, in turn, can be used against chosen targets anywhere across the world. Tracking them back into Syria will be next to impossible.

The author (@india_anju) is an IPS Officer. Views expressed are personal.

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