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Deadly Islamic State Ambush in Syria Goes Largely Unnoticed, Expert Warns of Ticking Time Bomb
A woman and children await departure during release of a group of Syrian families from al-Hol camp, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State fighters, in northeastern Syria, Jan. 28, 2021. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

Deadly Islamic State Ambush in Syria Goes Largely Unnoticed, Expert Warns of Ticking Time Bomb

26 pro-regime combatants were killed early Monday morning in an Islamic State attack on a military patrol

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that Islamic State (IS) fighters ambushed a military convoy of Syrian army soldiers and militiamen loyal to the Assad regime, early Monday morning. At least 26 pro-regime troops were killed in the attack, making it the deadliest since the beginning of the year. Eleven IS fighters were also killed. Despite the high death toll, Western media has largely ignored the incident.

“On 8 February, Islamic State militants conducted an ambush attack on a military convoy killing at least seven Syrian army soldiers of the 17th Division and at least 19 militiamen from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Brigades,” Olivia Harper, an analyst at Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC) confirmed. The attack occurred in the Al-Mayadeen desert in Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zur governorate. The convoy was searching the area for unidentified combatants when it was attacked, SOHR and Harper reported.

It has been almost two years since former President Donald Trump claimed that “100%” of Syrian territory held by IS had been recaptured, yet in some areas of the Arab country, IS continues to be a concrete reality. “It is far from being finished business,” Yoram Schweitzer, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict, told The Media Line. “If you follow the actions of what they call IS and the Salafi-jihadi [organizations] in the last year, you can see that they’re active,” he said, speaking about not only Syria but the entire region. “[IS] has disappeared into the heart of the desert, to lawless areas from which it continues to act, in Syria, in Iraq as well as in the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.

The senior researcher called the present situation “a clear and glaring ticking time bomb”. He explained that there is a large number of Salafi jihadists in Syria, not all affiliated with IS. “This case of trained Salafi-jihadi militants and children that grew up in such an environment, without education, without alternatives, that will go out to the world as men, after being indoctrinated. … This is an issue that will explode.”

Schweitzer refers to children who grew up under IS rule, many of whom are now held in refugee camps in northeastern Syria. More than 64,000 detainees – most of them women and children – are held in the biggest camp, al-Hol. UN human rights experts recently said that the conditions and treatment in these camps “may well amount to torture”

Western countries, however, are turning a blind eye at their own peril. Al-Hol, for example, can very well be “a launching pad for trained and skilled [fighters] toward the West.” However, “The West is busy with its own numerous problems, and as long as there aren’t large explosions occurring in European and American cities,” a Western response – even a small-scale focused attacked – should not be expected, the researcher said.

As Schweitzer’s comments suggest, Monday’s ambush was not unusual. JTIC has “recorded 170 attacks conducted by the Islamic State that targeted security forces.” In a statement sent to The Media Line, Harper reported that the attacks are becoming more fatal. Indeed, 2020’s deadliest IS attack occurred less than two months ago, on December 30. In a similar ambush in Deir ez-Zur governorate, 29 Syrian soldiers were killed.

IS attacks, however, are not limited to military targets. The INSS researcher said that the organization had returned to its roots, reverting to methods it used before its rise and control of large swaths of land. The organization was “employing guerilla, terror and ‘mafia’ tactics.” They may have aspired to return to their former glory, he said, but they understood that this would not happen. Instead, “at this stage, they are resorting to hit-and-run raids but they are patient,” he said. Using assassinations to eliminate high-ranking officials and functionaries, and other tactics intended to sow terror, “they’re hoping to take over small parts of Syria that will help them – a grip on a territory outside the deserts.”

Felice Friedson contributed to this article.

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