The ISIS attack on Sweida in southern Syria last week, where coordinated suicide bombings and raids left more than 200 people dead, took many by surprise. Many had felt that ISIS was all but defeated in Iraq and Syria, and now concern is growing that it remains capable of conducting terrorist attacks.
But the situation in Sweida says more about the Syrian regime than about ISIS, and about how far the regime is willing to go to pursue its goals at the expense of civilian lives.
The ongoing military campaign has been presented by Russia and the Syrian regime as targeting ISIS and other terrorists. But in reality, it is a push to take back opposition-held areas, and the regime took the calculated step of ignoring pockets of ISIS influence as part of a plan to punish the population for defying the regime.
The province of Sweida is home to the Druze minority community in Syria. This minority was initially divided in its approach to the Syrian uprising. Some religious leaders sided with the regime on the basis that this would maintain protection for their community, while others, namely the ‘Sheikhs of Dignity’, took a more cautious stance, calling for the community to dissociate itself from the Syrian conflict.
The prevailing mood in Sweida echoed the calls of the Sheikhs of Dignity, especially after the regime’s assassination of one of their key figures, Sheikh Wahid al-Bal’ous, in 2015. The assassination spurred the rest of the Sheikhs of Dignity to call on the community to take up arms for self-protection, but not to participate in the war.
The Druze community largely took an independent stance in the Syrian conflict, managing its own security and economic affairs and the provision of services like the delivery of oil and food. It did not partner with any opposition group. Most men from the community refused to abide by conscription in the Syrian army in order to stay in Sweida to defend their area.
As the regime focused on advancing into other, higher-priority opposition areas, the province remained relatively calm compared to other areas of the country. The de facto de-escalation zone that has been put in place in southern Syria added to the sense of cautious stability. But the regime did not ignore Sweida completely.
As pro-regime militias began to form and fight alongside the regime in the south, they installed checkpoints at the entrance of Sweida, extorting the residents of Sweida and terrorizing those who tried to enter or leave. The regime set up its own checkpoints further away on the outskirts of the area, giving the militias free rein as punishment for the resistance of Sweida’s residents.
Further angering the regime, the residents of Sweida refused to take part in its campaign in Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk, including the widespread looting that the Syrian army and pro-regime militias engaged in following the takeover of the two areas.
As part of its campaign in the Yarmouk basin, the regime, with Russia’s help, evacuated members of ISIS to the eastern desert on the border of Iraq and Syria. It is from this desert that ISIS fighters advanced to Sweida to conduct the massacre. Although ISIS attacked some regime checkpoints in the process, pro-regime forces largely left ISIS alone as it proceeded in its attack.
This is not the first time that the regime has indirectly used ISIS as a method of punishing its opponents. In 2015, the regime turned a blind eye when ISIS advanced from the east to the south and began attacking the Southern Front, part of the Free Syrian Army.
But this is also not the first time that the regime has indirectly used ISIS to punish Sweida. In 2014, when ISIS was advancing towards the city, the regime’s intelligence passed it information which helped the group to occupy the Sweida desert. The regime also tried to take over the Sheikhs of Dignity’s heavy weapons during the time of the ISIS advance. Sheikh al-Bal’ous stood up to the regime at the time, paving the way for his assassination in 2015.
ISIS is far from being obliterated and is transforming into an insurgency that uses opportunistic attacks like the one in Sweida to show that it can still inflict damage. But the latest attack is more an indication of the regime’s calculations than a serious ISIS resurgence. In its estimation, ISIS attacks, even if some come against regime checkpoints, are useful to advance its pretext that its advances are to fight terrorism – and the deaths of regime personnel and civilians are a price worth paying.