The evacuations of hundreds of fighters and thousands of civilians from Isis’s last enclave in Deir al-Zor, east of the Euphrates, hasn’t been recorded internationally, even though it means that the organisation’s internationally-wanted first-rank fighters have escaped. The Democratic Syrian Forces see two possible ways of escaping. Either there are tunnels that allowed for the escape of some 3,000 fighters or the fighters had escaped earlier to the desert region in the west Euphrates, a region now known as Syria’s “Tora Bora”.
While the first possibility seems bleak, given that the Syrian Democratic Forces controlled most of the enclave, there are indicators that show that the second possibility is more realistic. Sources from the forces supported by the international coalition told 7D News that Isis, prior to the last operation to take back Bagouz, “launched a massive operation to infiltrate the west Euphrates bank towards the desert” which is located within rural Deir al-Zor and eastern Homs. This is a vast geographical area that the Syrian regime and its allies have not been able to fully control and is used by Isis to launch security operations against the regime’s forces and the Iranian militias in the region.
The sources also said, “tens of the escape operations towards these areas have been observed. These operations were a prelude to the last military operation Isis undertook to take back control of its last stronghold,” noting that Isis is “proficient” in these kinds of operations, “and are using them whenever they know that there’s a counter operation to get them out of any particular area.” The sources also noted that the western Euphrates area in which Isis now exists, “cannot be described as a stronghold because it is a desert area that is far away and can only hide militants in the form of small scattered groups.”
Isis still controls the around 4000 square kilometres of the Syrian desert, also known as the Badiya, but the area is surrounded by the Russians, the Iranians, and the Syrian regime from the north of the desert and the outskirts of Deir al-Zor. This area is called the “Tora Bora” of Syria in relation to its geographic position and the fact that its purpose is similar to the Afghan Tora Bora, which was used as a hiding place for the leaders of Al Qaida.
Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told 7DNews that this area contains many caves where the top ranking militants are thought to be hiding. Abdulrahman points out that, “it is possible that al-Baghdadi or any of Isis’s leaders in this region can disappear for a long time in this area and it would be difficult for the Russians and their allies to control this location, short of destroying it entirely.”
Since the winter of 2018, this region hasn’t witnessed a large-scale military operation with the intent of eliminating Isis . Local residents say the regime’s forces and its allied militias mostly withdrew from this area last September, heading to Idlib in preparation for a battle they had thought would be fought, one that was hampered by the Russian-Turkish agreement that was made during the same month. Now, “Isis militants can be found in large numbers throughout their largest remaining enclave in the west of the Euphrates River.”
Isis has had to divide its militants into small groups and squads, especially since most of its members are now hiding in caves and moving on foot or by motorcycle. The squads’ mission is to carry out sudden and quick military operations, such as planting bombs, before quickly returning back to their hiding place. Isis has been doing this since last summer and has managed to keep these operations alive till now.
In early February, Isis carried out an attack targeting loyalists to the Syrian regime in the Badiya region. The militants attacked a car carrying members of reconciliation committees and elements of the regime’s National Defence force in the northern Badiya region of Qulaie and resulted in the killing of 3 National Defence members and injuring others. One of the injured is responsible for “Reconciliation” efforts in the Badiya region. In response, the regime targeted a vehicle belonging to Isis in the eastern sector of Homs, killing seven militants.
Isis is trying to take advantage of the complex geographic nature of the region, a strategy that it followed in Iraq back in 2008 and even earlier in Afghanistan. It is also trying to expand its control of the desert areas, which are described as having “soft security”, in order to provide its militants with additional protection.
There are reports that indicate clashes between the regime’s forces and Isis’s security forces within these desert areas, showing that Isis is still capable of expanding its presence beyond the desert enclave. An area in the vicinity of the al-Safa hills, on the administrative border of Damascus and Suwayda, witnessed two military clashes between Isis gunmen and the regime’s forces deployed in the area. The attacks resulted in the death of 4 Isis members. According to activists, Isis’s members are still spreading across several caves in the Al-Safa hills. Additionally, there is information regarding their presence in the area of Al-Karaa in the north-eastern Suwayda countryside.
Since the defeat of its militants in most of the territories it previously controlled back in 2017, Isis's expansion has been reduced to the Bagouz area, which represents a group of small rural communities and agricultural land in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor. Isis has adapted to this new reality and has launched a series of recent guerrilla attacks in Syria.