Surprise ISIS attack halts life in group’s former de facto capital in Syria


On Monday, a state of emergency and a total citywide curfew was instituted by the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES) in the city of Raqqa in the aftermath of a surprise and unexpected attack by fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) against a security complex that holds hundreds of the group’s extremists.

The complex includes a military intelligence center run by the Internal Security Forces of North and East Syria (Asayish) and 200 high-level former extremist fighters of the radical group.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Raqqa attack in retaliation for the Muslim prisoners and relatives of the extremists living in the Kurdish-administered al-Hol camp, in east Hasaka city, the group affiliated media outlets said.

Competent authorities of the AANES known otherwise as Rojava said six Asayish members and SDF fighters (three each) were killed in the sweeping attack and others were injured. One of the assailants was killed while the other, who was reportedly wearing an explosive belt, was detained by the SDF.  

Raqqa serves as both a symbolic and strategic location for the Islamic State, straddling Syrian and Iraq. In 2014 the group took possession of the city and turned it into the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate. 

In 2017, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with air support by the the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS liberated the city from the group. In late March 2019, the group was territorially defeated in the Syrian Deir Ezzor village of Baghouz.

With the vast majority of the city being reduced to debris, Raqqa is a heavily fortified city. Since late 2019, the one- time ISIS capital served as the de facto capital of Rojava,  with the main offices transferred from Ain Issa to the city following the Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tal Abyad October operation by Turkish armed forces.

Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS remains active and lethal through its sleeper cells, making use of the vast rugged spaces of the Syrian Desert and the border areas between Syrian and Iraq. The group largely employs kick-and-run tactic against Syrian regime forces and the SDF.

On November 23, the SDF suspended its joint-patrols with the Global Coalition against sleeper cells of the Islamic group due to the Turkish aerial bombardment and artillery shelling against the region amid reports of an imminent ground invasion. Operations resumed days later. 

On December 14, the Global Coalition returned to Raqqa after three years of abandonment in a bid seen by observers to minimize Russia’s increasing role in the area. December has been a bloody month—16 operations were carried out by ISIS  against the SDF in Deir Ezzor and Hasaka, claiming 11 lives. ISIS still draws support in the tribally-run areas.

Last week, the Global Coalition said they conducted three helicopter raids in eastern Syria, which resulted in the detention of six ISIS operatives, a statement read.

Also, nine police officers were killed in an attack claimed by the group’s militants in the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk.

Raqqa is home to offices and headquarters of a lot of local and international NGOs and many other political parties and bodies affiliated with Kurdish authorities.

At this time of the year, movement of vehicles are restricted, security increased and highly-policed security checkpoints are installed at different locations in major cities across Rojava to preserve peace and security during the Christmas festivities and the New Year celebrations. Many questions remain unanswered.

However, Raqqa’s bizarre occurrence was not the sole one to be carried out by the group’s affiliates on December 26. ISIS sleeper  cells attacked SDF held- posts in three different places in Deir Ezzor on the very same day. Two SDF fighters were reported injured. Within 48 hours the security checkpoint in the Deir Ezzor town of al-Jassemi close to the town of Suar was hit twice.

While Syrian Kurds have recently seen dangers and threats coming from the north, it has been a while since drone strikes by Turkish air forces have been halted against northeast Syria. The problem in Rojava seems a multi-faceted one.

A major dilemma emerges out of Raqqa's Monday occurrence which shows clearly that addressing the issue of ISIS in northeast is not merely restricted to foreign fighters held at detention centers nor to their families and children held at al-Hol Camp. Rather, it is the radical ideology imbeded by people formerly under the group’s rule. This is seen in the popular support the group still garners among the tribal community. The problem has roots elsewhere.

Under an initiative named "Tribal Sponsorship System" thousands of Syrians (male and female) affiliated with the group and impeded with its exclusionist ideology left the camp from 2019 to 2021. Research on the ground reveal those affiliates held under dire living conditions and religious restrictions imposed on them in the al-Hol Camp among others become more extremist. This applies notably to children. When released, they are driven by their former ISIS-inculcated teachings.

The attack in late January against Hasaka's Sinaa' Prison revealed those formerly released with guarantees by tribal sheikhs from the notorious camp participated in the assault. This lays no doubt on the fact that the group still magnates sympathizers.

Hard living conditions across the region and political instability impact the role in keeping those people attached to the group’s teachings.

While the SDF kept the group at bay from 2019 to 2021, this reality seemed otherwise in 2022. This adds more burdens to the security and military personnel of the Kurdish-led Rojava authorities.

Amid such a gloomy situation, Syrian Kurds seem squeezed by Turkey and its affiliated factions of Syrian National Army (SNA) on the one hand and the Syrian regime forces from another. Russia-- as a main supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad-- has always kept the SDF under intense pressure with the aim to drag it into the lap of the regime.

However, the most dangerous dilemma facing the SDF lies at home not behind areas or at the fronts. With ISIS (foreign) extremists held at prisons on Rojava soil, this remains the most delicate issue that raises its head from time to time. Former (Syrian) detainees or affiliates released from al-Hol Camp have proven unrepentant.

As confidence with U.S. partners remains a shaky one, Syrian Kurds could feel vulnerable again, and with no mountains in Rojava that could shield them, they could become friendless again.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.