Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Islamic State in Daraa, Problematic Presence

The killing of the leader of the Islamic State poses an important question: Why was al-Qurashi in Daraa?

Islamic State in Daraa
A Syrian man rides his motorcycle past damaged buildings in the southern city of Daraa, on March 16, 2017. MOHAMAD ABAZEED / AFP

The Daraa governorate has never been a social incubator for the Islamic State (ISIS). Surprisingly, however, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade pledged allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to “Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army” in 2014.

At the time, it used the rough lands of the Yarmouk Basin as a base and clashed with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for over a year. The clashes reduced the group’s presence as most of its members dispersed into hard-to-reach areas of Daraa while others disappeared among civilians as so-called sleeper cells.

Daraa witnessed over 200 assassinations between 2016 and 2017. Leaders of the FSA, moderate clergy and several public figures with civil activities – including Osama al-Yatim, the head of the Opposition Court of Justice in Hauran – were targeted.

The culprits of al-Yatim’s assassination proved to be part of the Islamic Muthanna Movement. At the time, leading figures of this movement, including Mohammad Al Masalma (nicknamed Hofu), pledged allegiance to ISIS and began inciting people to murder all opposing ISIS ideology and the FSA’s leadership.

The exposure of the circumstances surrounding al-Yatim’s death led to the arrest of some of the Muthanna Movement leaders by the Eighth Brigade while others disappeared. These groups, which denied having ties to ISIS, were stationed in the Tariq al-Sad region in Daraa, which was controlled by the Syrian regime.

The presence of groups affiliated with the Islamic State has faded over the past years, but assassinations have recently resurfaced in Jasim city in Daraa’s western countryside.

However, opposition factions were able to end the activities of an ISIS cell in the city, leading to the deaths of several of the cell’s leaders, including Abdulrahman al-Iraqi, Abu Mohannad al-Lebnani, and Abu Loai al-Qalmoni.

Following the end of the military operation in Jasim, local formations, including the Eighth Brigade, initiated another military crackdown against ISIS cells in the neighbourhoods of Daraa al-Balad and Tariq al-Sad. These operations followed a suicide bombing that targeted the house of former FSA leader Ghassan Abazid.

The Death of an ISIS Leader

After eradicating the ISIS cells in the Tariq al-Sad neighbourhood, opposition factions declared the organisation’s leader, Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, dead.

Later, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed the news of al-Qurashi’s killing by Syrian factions. CENTCOM’s spokesman, Joe Buccino, considered his death “another blow to ISIS,” pointing out that “ISIS remains a threat to the region.”

The killing of the leader of the Islamic State poses an important question: Why was al-Qurashi in Daraa, even though he preferred to reside in other areas?

A source close to the Eighth Brigade told Fanack, “Iran is responsible for moving al-Qurashi to the south in coordination with Hezbollah, specifically to Jasim.”

The source, who remains anonymous for safety considerations, confirmed that al-Qurashi’s move from northern and northeastern Syria to the south, and especially the western countryside of Daraa, would have been impossible without passing through areas under the Iranian factions’ control.

The same source emphasised that Iran made this move to further subjugate the region already almost entirely under Hezbollah’s control. According to the source, Iran’s long-term objective is to create additional leverage to disturb Israel.

In this context, the source stressed the importance of not neglecting the social and intellectual impact of ISIS’ control over this area, which is close to the Yarmouk Basin.

The influence of ISIS in Daraa ended after Syrian regime forces took over in 2018. However, there are conflicting narratives on how this influence came to an end.

While activists accuse the Syrian regime of facilitating the movement of many ISIS leaders and members to other areas of Daraa, over the past years, the regime has threatened to storm certain areas in the governorate under the pretext of subduing terrorist cells.

Abdulrahman al-Haj, a researcher specialising in Jihadist movements, does not rule out that elements of ISIS in the south of Daraa maintain close relationships with the Syrian regime. He attributed this suggestion to the parties’ “mutual interests,” particularly in light of the differences in movement between the ISIS branches in Daraa and as-Suwayda, and those in the Syrian desert.

According to al-Haj, the regime used the organisation’s cells repeatedly “as a pretext to subdue as-Suwayda, and now wants to incorporate it as an element in the subjugation of Daraa.”

ISIS Impact

As previously mentioned, the military campaign in the neighbourhoods of Daraa al-Balad and Tariq al-Sad began when a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the guesthouse of opposition leader Ghassan Abazid.

The attack killed four people – some of whom were former leaders of the armed opposition – and five others were injured. Al-Harfush was accused of planning the operation by suicide bomber Abu Hamza Sbeineh in coordination with Yusef al-Nabulsi, ISIS’ emir in Daraa al-Balad.

Following the suicide attack, Daraa’s residents launched a military campaign to rid the city of ISIS. They cooperated with the Eighth Brigade and the central committees’ militias from the western region. Both entities joined the campaign upon the request of the city’s residents.

Commenting on the recent military campaign, researcher al-Haj says, “ISIS did not make any statements about these campaigns, but the method by which the suicide attack was carried out in Daraa al-Balad indicates that it is the culprit.”

According to activist al-Ghazawi, the suicide bomber was not a Daraa native; instead, he was taking shelter at Hofu’s residence. Recently, recordings have been published that prove ISIS’ involvement in the attack.

In the past, the Horan Free League has revealed the involvement of the Islamic State in assassinations for the Syrian security apparatus. These operations have claimed the lives of numerous opponents of the Assad regime and Iran’s militias in Daraa.

Several days ago, following the incidents that took place in Jasim, the Horan Free League posted a video depicting the confessions of Rami al-Salkhadi, an ISIS leader, about the organisation’s involvement in assassinations for the security services and Iran. These operations targeted a number of well-known dissidents, such as Sheikh Abu al-Baraa al-Jalam.

Al-Salkhadi also confessed that he met with Brigadier General Louay al-Ali, the de facto ruler of Daraa. According to al-Salkhadi, al-Ali ordered him to assassinate several well-known public figures in Jasim and to smuggle several members of ISIS into Daraa. The captured leader stressed that he carried out the order in coordination with his cousin, Nidal al-Salkhadi, who has ties to the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Mysterious Endings

The recent military campaign has caused a rift between the people of Daraa. It also left two urgent questions unanswered: Where did ISIS members disappear to? What happened to al-Mosalama and al-Harfush?

Abu Mahmoud al-Horani, the spokesman of the Horan Free League, believes that al-Mosalama and al-Harfush most likely were able to break free from the siege and flee the area. Al-Horani said, “The regime’s Air Force Intelligence Service may have had a hand in smuggling them out of the area before the local factions took control of it.” He noted that ISIS has not yet completely left Daraa, clarifying that “there are minor groups in Daraa that ISIS still uses.”

Al-Ghazawi says there is an unofficial agreement on ridding the area of ISIS. He adds, “About 40 ISIS members fled the Tariq al-Sad area, most of whom are front-line leaders. On the other hand, 20 of the organisation’s members were killed.”

Intractable Situation

Regarding to which areas ISIS members may have fled, al-Ghazawi said, “They have certainly moved to other villages and areas of Daraa to complete their objectives.” He referred to their potential return to the Tariq al-Sad area “since they are from that area and know it very well.”

The last battle against ISIS cells did not achieve the desired results since many managed to escape. They may soon return to the same neighbourhoods, starting another chapter of tribal conflict. The Abazid tribe accuses the al-Mosalama tribe, to which Hofu belongs, of covering for the perpetrator of the recent bombing that killed five of its members.

Al-Ghazawi said that civilians are the most affected by the intractable situation in Daraa: “These civilians previously lost their homes because of the regime’s bombing, and today they are displaced again because of ISIS’ operations in their neighbourhoods.”

Al-Haj told Fanack, “Theoretically, the regime is supposed to fight ISIS. However, the regime uses ISIS and exploits mutual interests against remnants of opposition formations of the Free Syrian Army in the area.”

Media activist Mohamed al-Ghazawi statements exceed al-Haj’s opinion. He asserts that the movement of ISIS cells between villages and towns in Daraa takes place in coordination with the regime to facilitate their entry into defiant areas to enforce a resolution. He believes that it is in the regime’s interest to preserve some elements with extremist ideologies to undermine the security and stability of the governorate and to carry out assassinations against the regime’s opponents.

In his interview with Fanack, al-Ghazawi refers to the movement of ISIS members between the Syrian Desert and Daraa, passing through Lajat, Rajm al-Baqar and Bi’r Qassab, despite the presence of Iranian militias and al-Assad forces throughout those areas.

The source close to the Eighth Brigade confirms al-Haj’s position. He says, “After the regime took over parts of Daraa through a joint operation with Russia in 2019, it released dozens of Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army’s members.

Among those who were released and subsequently contributed to the reactivation of the organisation in southern Syria was Maher Kanhoush from the town of Jabab, north of Daraa. It is known that Kanhoush held an important position in the Diwan al-Hisbah of ISIS.

The list also includes Yusuf al-Nabulsi, also known as Abu al-Baraa. Al-Nabulsi is the Emir-General of the organisation’s security cells outside the Yarmouk Basin that ISIS previously controlled through the Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army. He is now in charge of the military operations of Mohamed al-Mosalama’s group, also known as Hofu, and Muayad Harfush, also known as Abu Tajah.

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