Conflict

Infighting rife among ISIS militants with the group on the cusp of losing last remaining territory

Syria

With ISIS confined to a small portion of territory in eastern Syria, reports of infighting among the group’s militants over the past few weeks have once again surfaced.

Reports have suggested that infighting has been ongoing between ISIS militants over the past few weeks in eastern Syria. The skirmishes have largely taken place between the group’s foreign militants and their Syrian and Iraqi counterparts as the group struggles to hold onto its remaining territory.

As ISIS leadership grapples with their eventual demise, many militants and their families, both foreign and national, face a bleak future: either die in battle or face arrest by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with little prospect of extradition to their home countries.

Many of ISIS’ Syrian and Iraqi militants have already attempted to escape defeat and justice by blending in with the local population, fleeing the intensifying battle. In doing so, they have often left the foreign militants behind, leading many of the foreigners to complain that they are being “hung out to dry” by the group’s remaining leadership. As a result, foreign fighters, who are estimated to number several hundred, have been almost exclusively tasked with defending the group’s last remaining territory and the high-level commanders that are besieged within.

Earlier this month, reports surfaced that a number of foreign fighters reportedly broke-rank to stage a coup d’état against ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, before the capture of Hajin. Although the coup-plotters failed to overthrow Baghdadi, the incident nevertheless represented a low point for the ISIS leadership. Similarly, a number of ISIS militants were executed by the group for attempting to escape last Tuesday evening.

Desperate to escape encirclement, the remaining militants in eastern Syria have attempted to negotiate an evacuation agreement, either to Idlib or to the Syrian Desert in return for the release of a number of high-profile hostages, including the British journalist John Cantlie and the Italian Priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. The offer was rejected, in part, because of the lack of evidence offered by ISIS that the hostages are still alive.

As the defeat of ISIS in eastern Syria looms closer, the authority of its leadership has effectively collapsed amidst a string of battlefield failures and the widespread desertion of its militants. In addition, the abandonment of its foreign militants will impact any future recruitment attempts by the group, hopefully starving it of much-needed foreign recruits in the event of a future resurgence.

Indeed, having found its territory collapse, ISIS will likely attempt to go underground, blend into the population and make plans for a return. It will probably exploit the same old claims about marginalization or peddle the lie that it represents Muslims globally. In such cases, remembering how the group simply threw away its die-hard followers who travelled around the world to join its so-called Caliphate will be ever-more important.