- ISIS faces total military defeat in Syria
- But an ISIS-Affiliate in southern Syria continues to control territory
- The group has not received much media attention
- Though the group remains local in nature, it could become a launchpad for future terrorist attacks
By Ty Joplin
On Feb. 19th, 2017, Iraqi forces began their offensive to retake the remaining parts of Mosul still under control by ISIS. The group was facing a stream of military defeats on every front, and couldn’t seem to hang on to any territory it had captured.
It was clear the group was on the wane.
Just one day after however, on Feb. 20th, ISIS-affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin Walid (JKW) stormed through several villages in southwestern Syria, seizing them from opposition fighters.
JKW, which still controls a large swath of land near the Golan Heights and on the border with Jordan, continues to operate with little resistance; a stark contrast to ISIS which has drawn the ire of the entire world.
In this sense, JKW's success serves to complicate the broad narrative that ISIS is on its last leg.
A recent push by segments of the Free Syrian Army to drive JKW out has thus far been unsuccessful. For all the discussion surrounding ISIS’ military defeat in Syria, JKW has quietly ruled and terrorized thousands of Syrian civilians with no major international coalition or anti-ISIS campaign to unseat it.
As ISIS flees into the far reaches of the Syrian and Iraqi desert, its affiliate to the south looks here to stay.
JKW was estimated in 2016 to have up to 1,000 fighters in its ranks and has been in solid control of a small area lodged between the Golan Heights, the Syrian city of Deraa and the Jordanian border. It has been described by Scott Lucas, a Professor of International Relations at the University of Birmingham, as a ‘benign tumor’ that ‘doesn’t show up on X-rays’ of the Middle East political landscape.
In contrast to its flailing parent-organization, ISIS, which relied heavily on foreign transplants who attracted the military attention of much of the world, JKW is mostly made up on locals to the towns it controls.
This, according to Chris Kozak, a research analyst for the Institute for the Study of War, is one of the reasons JKW has been so difficult to dislodge: “Expelling [these fighters] from their own hometowns is very difficult.”
Because the group is composed of locals, has a local agenda, and is small compared to other jihadist groups in the region, it continually falls between the cracks of media attention and military campaigns.
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One ongoing offensive launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Deraa has thus far been unable to make any meaningful progress against JKW, and it still controls the town of Tasil, which looks to have been the FSA’s tactical priority to capture.
Most of the FSA’s attention continues to be directed against the regime in the region, allowing JKW precious breathing room.
Jordan, for its part, has taken a hard stance against the group. One anonymous government source warned to JKW via Al Monitor: “Anyone who comes close to the border will die,” though it appears JKW is content to simply controlling the territory it does rather than aggressively expand.
The true danger of the group may not lie in the mere fact that it constitutes a part of ISIS and seems to be surviving while its allies are dying: after all, it does not represent an immediate danger to anybody outside of the territory it controls and is essentially local in nature.
As a stable group, it is an attractive place for ISIS fighters to retreat to if they can make it through Syria to reach the land JKW controls.
Because of its strategic location near Israel and Jordan, it is particularly dangerous if JKW becomes a group that serves as a platform to launch attacks beyond Syria.
In other words, what is currently a 'benign tumor' may become cancerous in the near future.
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