Islamic State militants killed at least 50 people in a wave of suicide bombings and gun attacks in regime-held parts southern Syria Wednesday — the latest sign that the group is making a comeback as an insurgent force despite the loss of its caliphate.
The apparently coordinated attacks, the deadliest on Syrian government territory in recent months, included two suicide bombings in the city of Sweida, one on a busy marketplace, and others on three villages to the northeast of the city, where Syrian forces were engaged in ongoing battles with the militants Wednesday.
The UK-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said ISIS fighters had stormed homes in the villages and killed the occupants. At least 54 people had been killed, as well as more than 20 ISIS fighters. Al-Manar TV, run by Damascus ally Hezbollah, reported that 50 were killed and 78 wounded in the assaults.
Analysts say the attacks are the latest reminder of ISIS’s enduring threat despite the loss of its sprawling caliphate — and its reemergence as a growing insurgent guerrilla force, particularly in neighboring Iraq.
At its height, the Sunni extremist group commanded a huge swathe of contiguous territory across Syria and Iraq, accounting for about a third of both countries’ land. The so-called caliphate ruled over about 10 million residents, and attracted more than 40,000 extremists from other countries who wanted to live in their vision of an Islamic fundamentalist paradise.
Years of concerted military efforts against the militants including by a U.S.-led international coalition have decimated the group, and reduced its holdings to small pockets either side of the Syria-Iraq border.
“Their big narrative can’t be we control a state because they obviously don’t any more,” Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, told VICE News.
Instead, as the group had lost territory it had reverted to being a guerrilla organization, “launching attacks in the countryside, hiding in the hills, a hit and run approach.”
“That’s what they have the capability to do — in many ways this is a reversion to form.”
Columb Strack, principal analyst for Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit, told VICE News that he expected to see similar attacks in Sweida and Damascus in the coming months, until the Syrian regime could divert resources from an ongoing offensive to expel the ISIS presence from the area.
He said ISIS’s presence in neighboring Iraq was even stronger, and the group was experiencing a resurgence “facilitated by implicit support of the local population.”
“They have regrouped and are building up their capability to conduct attacks against the Iraqi government and in particular Shia forces operating there,” he said. “They do not seek to re-establish a caliphate though. They’ve learned the valuable lesson that any territory they control just becomes a target for U.S. Coalition airstrikes.”
Reuters reported Tuesday that Iraq had experienced a surge in kidnappings and killings, mainly in the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin, since May, due to an increasingly aggressive ISIS guerrilla campaign.
Strack said most of ISIS’s offensive activities were now focused in Iraq, where the group had its beginnings as an Al Qaeda offshoot. He expected their ranks to be swelled by ISIS militants coming across the border from Syria where they are being eroded by U.S.-backed forces, and the Syrian regime and its allies.
Cover image: In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians inspect the site of a suicide attack in Sweida, Syria, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (SANA via AP)