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What’s left of ‘Islamic State’ in Syria?

BEIRUT: The Islamic State jihadist group, whose self-proclaimed “caliphate” disintegrated last year, still controls pockets of territory in Syria.

The organisation’s fighters even took control of a small neighbourhood in southern Damascus this week, in a surprise nighttime operation that took advantage of the vacuum left by the evacuation of another armed group.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, IS controls less than five percent of Syria.

Threat on Damascus?

IS jihadists have retained a presence in several small pockets in southern Damascus, including the neighbourhoods of Tadamon, Hajar al-Aswad and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk.

Earlier this week, they seized control of the nearby neighbourhood of Qadam, which was vacated by another armed group as part of a deal with the government last week.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, at least 62 regime and allied forces were killed during the surprise nighttime attack.

Syria Islamic State IS

President Bashar al-Assad has made clear he would focus his efforts on securing the capital, as exemplified by the assault launched last month on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta after a five-year siege.

The Al-Watan daily, a newspaper close to the regime, said Wednesday that the southern neighbourhoods of Damascus would be the government’s next target, with Hajar al-Aswad identified as the jihadists’ main base.

“The Islamic State is an irritant to the Assad government in Damascus, but it is not currently a mortal threat,” said Nicholas Heras at the Center for a New American Security.

He warned however that the Qadam scenario could repeat itself.

“As the armed opposition dies off in the area of Damascus, the space that is occupied is open to the infiltration of the Islamic State,” Heras said.

Dregs of the caliphate

The pockets IS still holds in Damascus were never contiguous to the “caliphate”, the proto-state the group declared over swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The self-proclaimed jihadist state collapsed late year after three years of international military operations and the group barely has fixed positions left.

The US-led coalition and its Kurdish allies, as well as the Russia-backed regime and allied militia, are still hunting down holdout jihadists in desert areas of eastern Syria.

Air strikes are still carried out against pockets of IS fighters in Deir Ezzor province, east of the Euphrates and near the border with Iraq.

IS fighters there have reverted to the guerrilla methods that the group’s previous iterations thrived on, as have units of IS fighters still active in a region of Homs province.

Estimates on the number of IS fighters still present in Syria vary. Heras put the range between 8,000 and 13,000.

IS resurgence?

Officials have consistently warned that while the “caliphate” was dead, the Islamic State group was not — nor were the social and economic circumstances it fed on to grow.

The United States, which spearheads an international coalition against IS, has voiced its concern that unrelenting fighting across Syria was distracting from the fight on the jihadists.

“This is a serious and growing concern,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this week, after the coalition’s main partners on the ground were ousted from Afrin by a Turkey-led offensive.

The People’s Protection Units Kurdish militia had redeployed some of its units from desert areas in the east where they had been battling remnant jihadists to join the defence of Afrin.

Syria Islamic State IS

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, predicted a real resurgence was unlikely, however.

“It is very difficult for IS to get its feet back on the ground. The situation is nothing like it was in 2014,” he said, stressing that the Syrian army had grown stronger.

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