On 3 February, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American special forces had killed the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abdullah Qardash, in a house where he was hiding out in Idlib province, in north west Syria. Idlib is held by another militant group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate and supposedly a sworn enemy of ISIS. Qardash’s killing came just after ISIS’s largest attack in the country for years on a prison holding many ISIS prisoners in the north east, and a two-week long pitched battle between ISIS and the mostly Kurdish forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that control that area. Other ISIS attacks over recent years in the north east and the desert in central Syria suggest that despite having lost the territory it controlled for some years, ISIS remains a resilient insurgency. Moreover, its enemies are largely antagonistic toward each other and new fighting among them could open more space for jihadists.
This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to Crisis Group experts Dareen Khalifa, Senior Analyst on Syria, and Jerome Drevon, Senior Analyst on Jihad and Modern Conflict, about ISIS in Syria, its global footprint and the evolution of HTS. They assess the strength of ISIS, the nature of its insurgency and Qardash’s role before his death. They look at links between ISIS in Syria and affiliates in other parts of the world, notably Africa, where more local militants now fight under ISIS’s banner. They talk about the challenges faced by the largely Kurdish SDF, which leads the ISIS fight in the north east, their relations with Arabs in areas they control, their enmity with Turkey and their reliance on U.S. protection. They also discuss HTS and its rule in Idlib, where Qardash was killed, drawing on frequent visits to that area. They discuss the state of play in Syria more broadly – the U.S.’s presence in the north east, the uneasy ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in the north west and the precarious calm that prevails after years of brutal war.
For more on Syria, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Syria country page.
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