On January 3, five Syrian soldiers were killed and 20 were injured in a rocket attack while aboard a military transport bus. Syrian state media reported that fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), followed the attack with artillery shelling. The attack took place at 7 PM local time on the eastern coast of the country according to a report from Reuters. There is no further public information on the attack.
The events of this week are connected to the complex history of ISIL in the region. In 2014, ISIL declared an Islamic caliphate in an area touching both Iraq and Syria. ISIL spokesperson, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said that the group’s territory began in northern Syria and ran to the Diyala, an Iraqi province northeast of Baghdad. ISIL broadcasted the declaration of their caliphate through several videos that were distributed internationally. In one of the English videos, a jihadist from the group cautioned that “this is not the first border we will break, we will break other borders” according to The New Yorker. The BBC reports that at its peak, ISIL managed approximately 88,000 square kilometres (34,000 square miles) of land across both countries.
Despite this, ISIL lost the controlled territory only five years later. Iraq announced victory over the group in 2017 and Syria followed shortly thereafter. The group was officially defeated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in March 2019, according to The BBC. Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media office announced that “Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of the so-called caliphate and 100% territorial defeat of Isis [the IS group]” on March 21, 2019. Though there is still a jihadist presence, the SDF is now the most powerful stakeholder in north-eastern Syria.
ISIL holds no official power in Iraq and Syria. However, Aljazeera reports that the group “continues to wage a low-level fight in both countries, launching frequent hit-and-run raids from desert hideouts on either side of the border with Iraq.” The occurrences of this week are an illustration of this, as they remind the international community of their presence and continuing mission.
Though the Syrian and Iraqi triumph over the caliphate in 2019 was a significant victory, the group is still not defeated. The BBC suggests that ISIL “may have 15,000 to 20,000 armed adherents active in the region, many of them in sleeper cells.” Though we do not know the scope of their current rebuilding efforts, it is critical to continue investigations in the region to prevent further violence like that of this week.
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