Full Spectrum Jordan: A returning threat

Daesh's quiet resurgence in South Syria

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(File photo: Jordan News)
In an interview recently on Al-Mamlaka, US General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that US forces have a limited presence in Syria and are there to fight Daesh. So, is Daesh back? How do we know? And is this a threat to Jordan? اضافة اعلان

In Syria, the resurgence of Daesh's Wilayat Houran (the name of the South Syria branch of Daesh) has been quietly unfolding in the south. Since the beginning of 2022, this extremist group has been methodically enhancing its presence, particularly in areas surrounding Dera’a, Badiyat As-Suwaida, and Syrian Badia. This rebuilding has remained quiet for several reasons, largely due to communications. Global media attention has shifted away from stories on Syria, Daesh, and extremism. Even Milley’s interview was covered on European media because of his comments on Ukraine, not on the Middle East. Also, Daesh has changed its media strategy and is no longer announcing its actions with videos and social media, but subtly acting without fanfare.  It refrains from publicly announcing or claiming responsibility for its operations in the south, avoiding unwanted attention and troop reinforcements in the region. This clandestine strategy allows it to maintain its operational tempo while evading the spotlight. For Daesh, the media strategy was always part of their overall strategy.

Three things you should know

A Short History of Daesh in South Syria
While Daesh had a very strong presence in north, northeast, and central Syria it never really expanded the same way in the south of Syria. Its expansion and presence in the south happened gradually through local fighting groups that swore allegiance - primarily the two main groups of Shuhada’a Al Yarmouk and Islamic Muthanna Movement, merging later with other Islamic groups and creating what would be known as the Khalid Bin Al Walid Army (Jaysh Khalid Bin Al Walid). The existence of these groups was marred with internal divisions and in-fighting with other Islamic groups, most notably Nusra Front, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, as well as the rebel Free Army. When the Russian backed disarmament was underway, most areas were back under the control of the Syrian regime forces, with most of the fighters agreeing to leave to Northern areas. The last area and group to refuse to negotiate or agree on the disarmament deal was the Khalid Bin Al Walid Brigade - eventually the Syrian regime forces were able to expel and eradicate them from the south.  However, we now know that from 2018 until recently the group merely kept a low profile and camouflaged its presence in the violent chaos in the Syrian South.

What is Happening Now:
 Wilayat Haroun has shown itself capable of carrying out complex operations – especially when targeting military units. Overall, it targets military units, local armed groups and any figurehead deemed a “collaborator” with the regime. However, it is still focused on regrouping and rebuilding, especially militarily, and especially in the south. It is still in ‘startup’ mode and therefore unstable, but working on its organizational infrastructure. A strong structure is necessary not only for attacks but because it is facing a lot of major players – Russia, Assad regime forces, Iran backed militias, local armed groups, and tribal forces. Add to this also the US forces Killey is referencing in his Al-Mamlaka interview.

The group's reliance on "safe houses" scattered throughout the south serves as a foundation for their activities. These safe houses function as hubs for operations as well as housing "Muhajereen" fighters (those who migrate or immigrate to live and fight within the Islamic State). The network of decentralized, secret safe houses peppered throughout the south make any attempted analysis or evaluation of the threat they pose much more complex.

The group has also displayed self-reliance in financing its operations. It depends on the spoils of its activities, such as looting from military troops, armed groups, ransoms, and donations or forced “donations” from local residents. These gains allow them a degree of independence and unpredictability.

There is no evidence connecting Wilayet Houran to any drug trafficking in the south, which is primarily monopolized by Iran-backed groups and armed forces tied to the Assad regime. There is also not evidence so far of outside funding.

Wilayet Houran is still antagonistic towards other Islamist groups, and views the presence of HTS in the south very suspiciously, believing it is there for fighting them and not the regime.

How Can It Impact Jordan?
Jordan views the resurgence of Wilayat Houran as a grave threat. The possibility of fighters crossing the border and launching attacks within Jordan drives constant attention and resources from Jordan. This adds additional danger to the border which is already facing an onslaught of Captagon and Crystal meth smuggling in goods, armed attempts, and even drones.  While no evidence shows a tie to drug smuggling, how long until attempted weapons smuggling or trafficking of fighters becomes an issue?

While there is no concrete evidence of Jordanian nationals within the group's ranks in the south of Syria, recruitment efforts in Jordan remain a concern, driven by high youth unemployment and the allure of extremist ideologies. Jordanian authorities have noted spikes in recruitment potential, especially during times of increased tensions in Palestine and instances of perceived injustice, such as the burning of the Quran in Sweden. This underscores the group's capacity to exploit disenfranchisement and anger among disaffected youth.

Again, a lot is known by tracking the communication strategy. Daesh’s recruitment strategy involves direct grooming through Jihadi forum and still rely on their old operational method - attacks through inspiration rather communication.

For Jordan, this is an additional threat at the border, a possible destabilizer of the region, a violent force which could target Jordan itself, and a dangerous potential recruiter of Jordanian youth who may be susceptible to their methods.

My Take
Jordan realized a lot of this back in 2014 when we saw armed groups in South Syria. For years, Jordan put almost 70 percent of its military resources on the border with Syria because of armed groups and extremism. Jordan is already dealing with the massive smuggling attempts at the border, and still hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, even in the face of declining international support for those same refugees. Jordan is exhausted but still carrying on. Internal issues of the economy and new reform efforts also require attention, especially since the vulnerable groups that are the targets of the reforms could also be the target of Daesh recruiting.

This is not over. Daesh is coming back and Jordan remains a leader and main partner in fighting it.

For many of us who focus on Syria and have followed this for a decade, this is not a rerun but a dangerous reboot. The region is different, the world’s attention is elsewhere, both US and Russian forces have diminished. The issue of drug smuggling at the border introduces more groups and more arms into an already chaotic area.

While Daesh might be weaker in its organizational structure its recruitment efforts are well alive and still operates on attacks by inspiration rather than communication, it will only be a matter of time - if we let the situation in the Syrian South go unnoticed and not dealt with then we might see a resurgence of a stronger more organized and operationally capable group.

The latest developments and protests, especially those sparked in Suweida are clear signs that the Assad regime can no longer skate by without a real political solution. This political solution would bring different stakeholders to power, work on economic development, provide services, and of course, provide security for all Syrian citizens, not just those blessed by the Assad regime.

Chaos in South Syria does not only mean that Daesh can survive in the violent chaos, but, as we have seen before in South Syria, this can reintroduce hostile Iranian and Iranian-affiliated groups to the border of Jordan.

As Daesh rises in the area, Jordan also returns as a voice of leadership. But it requires the tools to fight as well as the attention and support of other nations to focus strategy on stabilization and order.

Katrina Sammour was first published on Full Spectrum Jordan, a weekly newsletter on SubStack. 

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