Report: US-Russian tensions and killing of top sheikh drive rise in ISIS sleeper cell and Syrian Government militia attacks

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Coalition, SDF and AANES officials have all been meeting with tribal figures in Deir-ez-Zor in the context of rising tensions and security challenges

Key Points

– Assassination attempts doubled in August (7 to 14) including the assassination of Sheikh Muttshar al-Hifil of the Al-Akidat tribe, sparking multiple days of protest across Deir-ez-Zor

– Attacks in general increased 88% (34 to 64), and up 65% in key Deir-ez-Zor region (26 to 43)

– In addition to the 31 attacks claimed by ISIS, 8 attacks are also attributed to Syrian Government-linked forces, plus 1 Turkish drone attack, 2 from Iranian militias, 4 from Turkish-controlled SNA militias and several unclaimed, marking a diversification of threats as US-Russian tensions rise

– Deaths are up 78% (18 to 32) including 9 direct assassinations, and injuries increased 36% (11 to 15) plus 5 failed assassination attempts

– Raids decreased 15% (13 down to 11), including in Deir-ez-Zor (6 to 4), resulting in a decreased number of arrests, down 21% from July (43 to 34)

In depth

In July North and East Syria (NES) saw a general decrease in attacks, and fatalities. But August began on a rough note, with the assassination of regional dignitary Sheikh Muttshar al-Hifil contributing to an already turbulent situation in Deir-ez-Zor. This resulted in a 65% (26, 43) rise in attacks in Deir-ez-Zor, while across the board we saw a 88% (34, 64) increase. In keeping with long-standing trends, ISIS is focusing its energy on assassinations of tribal dignitaries and other figures associated with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). In August, these tactics bore fruit, with wide-spread demonstrations breaking out as protesters demanded an improvement in the security situation in the region.

In total, there were 14 assassination attempts, double what was documented in July. 13 of these attempts occurred in the region of Deir-ez-Zor, and 9 of them were successfully carried out resulting in fatalities, while the remaining attacks resulted in the target being injured. Outside of assassinations, ISIS continues to plant IEDs, conduct abductions and use small firearms to spread terror among civilians.

This month saw a diversification of threats with new attacks from Syrian Government-backed militias in turbulent Deir-ez-Zor

This month, attacks were also documented which are believed to have been carried out by forces linked to the Syrian Government, namely the ‘National Defense Force’ militia (8), and Iranian militias (2). These attacks included the use of small firearms, as well as Katushya rockets and IEDs, and the first-ever attack on a US base in the region by a Damascus-linked group. This significant increase in hostilities from Damascus-linked groups marked increased efforts to put pressure on AANES, provoked in part by the ‘oil deal’ between AANES and a US company and increased US-Russian tensions in the region, as well as the instability in Deir-ez-Zor.

The Turkish-controlled Syrian National Army is also suspected of 11 attacks in Manbij, Raqqa and the Jazira region, including eight attacks in and around Ain Issa and the M4 highway, an area which saw much of the conflict during the so-called “Peace Spring” operation.

Throughout the beginning of 2020 the vast majority of sleeper-cell attacks were concentrated in Deir-ez-Zor, with a few in Raqqa or Heseke. August saw a quick increase of attacks in the region of Jazirah which had no confirmed attacks in July, and this month saw 8 attacks or security incidents away from the frontlines, including in Kurdish-majority cities such as Qamishlo and Amude.

While attacks across the board were on the increase, raids dropped 15% (13, 11), most significantly in the region of Deir-ez-Zor 33% (6,4). Most of the raids took place in Deir-ez-Zor (4) and Jazirah(4), plus 3 in Raqqa.  Not only were raids low, they also resulted in decreased arrests. In total there were 34 arrests, meaning a 21% decrease as compared to 43 documented in July. All of these arrests took place in Deir-ez-Zor, which saw 11 arrests, and Jazira (23).

Statement from Rojava Information Center researcher, Robin Fleming –

“The assassination of Sheikh Muttshar al-Hifil from the al-Akidat tribe, the biggest tribe in Deir-ez-Zor, set the pace for all of August. This disrupted life for civilians, who participated in protests calling for more effort to be made in finding and punishing the unknown gunman who carried out the attack, and for an improved security situation in the region of Deir-ez-Zor.  

Though the protests did briefly devolve into violence, more positively they have resulted in a number of discussions where representatives of the SDF and AANES listened to complaints and proposals for the situation of Deir-ez-Zor, and the establishment of a new devolved tribal system in the region. Despite protests and efforts toward finding a solution, assassinations doubled and attacks in general increased – showing that building trust and security in Deir-ez-Zor will require continued, committed effort from the SDF and their Coalition partners.

The number of attacks attributed to Syrian Government forces seen in August shows their efforts to use the instability in Deir-ez-Zor for their advantage, as this is the first time in 2020 that significant attacks connected to Damascus have been documented in the region. The primary motivation for these attacks was likely increased U.S.-Russian tensions in NES, along with the ‘oil deal’ supposedly in the works between NES and a U.S. company. U.S. bases also came under attack from Damascus-linked militias for the first time, as Russia and Damascus attempt to turn up the heat in this highly-strategic region.

The Turkish-controlled Syrian National Army and Turkey itself also stepped up destabilization efforts and targeting of civilians around their area of occupation, with this month seeing a flurry of such attacks, as Turkey, too, seeks to pressure the AANES. ISIS, Russia, Damascus, Iran and Turkey are all trying to destabilize NES, in a highly tense situation only made worse by confused and inconsistent U.S. policy toward their regional allies in the SDF.”

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