ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency in March 2022

April 4, 2022
Gregory Waters  —  Research Analyst

Following is the March 2022 installment of “ISIS Redux: The Central Syria Insurgency,” a monthly chronicle of attacks by the terrorist group ISIS in central Syria. A review of developments throughout 2021 can be found here, and a full background and analysis of ISIS’s resurgence in Syria, including the methodology used to collect this data, can also be explored herehere, and here.

ISIS militants carried out at least 17 confirmed attacks in March, killing at least 25 pro-Assad regime fighters and one civilian, while wounding at least 28 others in the Homs, Deir Ez Zor, Raqqa, Aleppo, and Hama governorates. ISIS activity increased in March following an extreme low in February. March’s escalation can largely be attributed to a general increase in attacks in Homs and Deir Ez Zor throughout the month and a sharp, though brief, escalation in activity in southern Raqqa between March 18 and 22. More importantly, ISIS carried out five high quality* attacks across three governorates in March, the second highest number in a month since May 2021, marking a shift to a more aggressive posture compared to the last several months.

Of March’s 17 attacks, only four were confirmed to have been conducted via mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), while at least nine employed small arms. Four other attacks were conducted by unknown means. The more frequent use of small arms, which requires ISIS cells to be actively monitoring targets and be willing to risk losing fighters and supplies, has not been a fixture in central Syria since the mini-offensives launched in September 2021. Several of these small arms attacks are significant for their location and complexity, and will be discussed in greater detail in their relevant sections below. The most important conclusions to be drawn from March’s attacks are: 1) ISIS cells appear to be closely watching regime movements along the Palmyra-Boukamal highway, looking for targets of opportunity; 2) ISIS cells have either returned to or have been reactivated along the Kawm-Jabal Bishri front of southern Raqqa and northeast Homs, and; 3) ISIS continues to infiltrate the Mheen countryside, south of Homs city, in a likely attempt to eventually target the critical energy infrastructure in the area.

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ISIS activity increased in all governorates except Hama and Aleppo in March. Deir Ez Zor (5) saw an increase in confirmed attacks compared with February, though activity there is still low compared to January. Homs (5) and Raqqa (4) experienced the most activity in March, reaching their highest levels in several months. East Hama (2) and south Aleppo (1) continued to witness a low level of mine activity, but it is again unclear how recently these mines were placed.

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Homs

ISIS activity more than doubled in Homs in March compared to February. Attacks were carried out in all parts of the governorate using both mines and small arms. On March 6, a group of militants ambushed a lone Syrian Arab Army (SAA) bus traveling east of the T3 pumping station, killing at least 13 soldiers and wounding 18. Among the dead was a brigadier general, the first commander kiled in 2022. This attack came two months after a nearly identical ambush on a small four-vehicle SAA convoy in the same area. These two attacks suggest that, while ISIS was unable to conduct highway ambushes for most of 2021, their cells have remained close by watching for vulnerable targets.

The next series of attacks occurred in mid-March, and likely involved mines or IEDs. On March 16, five pro-regime Liwa al-Quds fighters were reported killed near Jabal Amor, north of Palmyra. The cause of death was not given, but Liwa al-Quds has routinely suffered losses from mines in the past in this mountainous area. The next day, an SAA soldier was reported killed in the Tanf countryside, in southern Homs. A picture of a destroyed truck was published the same day, indicating he and likely others were killed when their truck hit a mine. On March 19, a vehicle belonging to the Iranian-backed Local Defense Forces was destroyed by a mine while doing new patrols east of Wadi Doubayat, south of Sukhnah. This wadi is still controlled by ISIS and the outskirts are heavily mined. Iranian forces have taken on the bulk of operations around here since the fall of 2021.

Finally, a suspected ISIS cell stole a small herd of sheep east of Mheen on March 26. This marks the third ISIS attack in the Mheen area in three months, a dangerous pattern so close to the southern Homs suburbs. The first occurred on February 14 when an ISIS cell fired on an SAA convoy near the town of Mheen in southern Homs. The small arms attack only led to minor injuries and failed to kill Major General Faris Ghaida, the military commander of the northeast region.

However, this attack follows last month’s mine attack south of Tiyas—just east of Mheen, and further supports regime fears that ISIS is attempting to infiltrate the southern Homs countryside. A regime officer overseeing security efforts in the area told this author in December 2021 that they had grown increasingly worried about ISIS infiltration attempts into the Mheen countryside after locals reported new movement of at least one cell in the area. He further stated that the Mheen countryside is known to still have ISIS sympathizers, and that security forces feared ISIS fighters were seeking to link up with those locals. The three attacks since then—one mine, one ambush on a military convoy, and now a sheep theft—underscore this worry. It is likely that ISIS seeks to infiltrate the southern Homs countryside in order to conduct an attack on critical infrastructure outside of Homs, similar to its September 2021 Damascus attack, which caused a nation-wide blackout.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Homs in March 2022 (highlighted dots) alongside all other attacks in 2022.

Deir Ez Zor

ISIS activity in Deir Ez Zor increased significantly in January 2022, but dropped to its lowest point ever in February before increasing slightly in March. Five attacks were confirmed this month, all of which occurred in the southwest of the governorate. On March 4 a soldier was reported killed near Boukamal in an unknown type of attack. The next day, reports emerged of significant fighting around the hamlet of Sawab, in the remote Boukamal countryside close to the Deir Ez Zor-Homs-Iraq border. According to regime security forces, ISIS launched a nighttime attack attempting to raid or seize a checkpoint in the hamlet. Fighting continued into the morning, with SAA reinforcements arriving from the nearby T2 Pumping Station. The raid ultimately failed. Regime forces lost at least one soldier while two ISIS fighters were killed.

Units of the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun, commanded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), engaged in several skirmishes with ISIS militants while patrolling the desert north of the T2 Pumping Station between March 10 and March 12. This front has seen recuring fighting for over a year, as ISIS fighters are suspected of controlling the area between here and the village of Faydat bin Muwaynah to the north. The skirmishes here in March are conservatively recorded as two events.

Lastly, on March 30 a Syrian soldier was reported killed in clashes west of the Akash Oil Field in the Boukamal countryside. The concentration of small arms attacks along the Iraq-Deir Ez Zor border may indicate that ISIS was, and possibly still is, moving fighters between the two countries. This could be related to the escapees from the Hasakah prison break in late January, or it could simply be relate to normal rotation of cells.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Deir Ez Zor in March 2022 (highlighted dots) alongside all other attacks in 2022.

Raqqa

ISIS activity has fluctuated in southern Raqqa for many months now. Attacks decreased for two straight months following a surge in December 2021, resulting in no confirmed activity in February 2022. However, a flurry of attacks in mid-March indicate that cells here remain active and highly potent.

As mentioned in previous reports, it appears that after ISIS withdrew from eastern Hama it began exploiting southern Raqqa as a new source of sheep to steal and either sell on the black market or supply to its cells in the Badia. This sheep stealing trend continued in March, with at least one group of shepherds being attacked south of Raqqa on March 19.

This attack came amid a series of serious clashes across southern Raqqa, beginning on March 18 and ending on March 21. Over four days, ISIS cells clashed with Liwa al-Quds, 5th Corps, and 18th Division forces as the militants targeted supply lines and regime positions. The heaviest battles occurred south of the hamlet of Khirbat al-Muqman, where ISIS cut supply lines and tried to besiege the troops in the hamlet. Security forces reported that ISIS used a rare anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) strike to destroy a Liwa al-Quds vehicle, and a Quds position was overrun near the nearby village of Fahdeh. Liwa al-Quds lost two more vehicles when the village was captured, and ISIS looted food and some minesweeping equipment. The Fahdeh position was recovered on March 21. Security forces also reported that shepherds affiliated with those who had been attacked on March 19 joined in the fighting out of revenge. Significantly, regime forces received no air support from either the Russian or Syrian air force. It is unclear why.

Also, on March 23, a mine wounded a soldier at the Dibseen Oil Field, southeast of Resafa. Small arms clashes had been reported in this area two months earlier.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Raqqa in March 2022 (highlighted dots) alongside all other attacks in 2022.

Hama and Southeast Aleppo

As with February, there was only one confirmed incident in southern Aleppo in March. On March 30 a soldier was officially reported as killed somewhere in the Aleppo governorate. Other unofficial reports put his place of death as somewhere in the southern countryside where ISIS has been operating. The soldier was likely killed by a mine during a sweeping operation, though exact details are unknown. It should also be noted that there were additional unofficial claims that he was actually killed alongside the previously mentioned soldier in the March 30 attack west of the Akash Oil Field in Deir Ez Zor.

Two mine attacks occurred in east Hama during March, a decrease from the four mine incidents in February. On March 17, a mine in the Rahjan area hit a group of what appeared to be local militia, killing two and wounding three others. The incident came the same day local security forces had launched a demining operation in the area. On March 22, a mine wounded a 10-year-old child outside his village in the Uqayribat area of southeast Hama.

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Map of ISIS attacks in Hama in March 2022 (highlighted dots) alongside all other attacks in 2022.

Regime Operations

There continues to be no major ongoing anti-ISIS operations this year in central Syria. The Russian Wagner Private Military Contractor moved fighters into the Kawm Oasis of east Homs in late February, following potential sightings of ISIS movement nearby, though they were not involved in the battles north of Kawm in March. Multi-day demining operations continue every one to two weeks in east Hama, southern Aleppo, and southwest Raqqa. Iranian-backed Local Defense Forces began a small sweeping operation around Wadi Doubayat in mid-March while Iranian commanded Syrian and Iraqi forces continue to do small operations and training in the Mayadeen and Boukamal countrysides, though nothing major enough to uncover ISIS hideouts or cells. Following the March 18-March 21 fighting in southern Raqqa, Liwa al-Quds forces launched a new sweeping operation that uncovered an ISIS-controlled oil well. Quds forces continued to sweep new areas for the rest of the month.

Looking Ahead

For the past two months, ISIS appeared to be following a lose pattern of going quiet for one to two weeks followed by multiple attacks over several days before going quiet again. In this sense, while March does represent an increase in activity compared to January and February 2022, it is not clear that there is a sustained increase in operational tempo in the Badia. More importantly, the types of attacks conducted during these brief periods of activity represent a more aggressive, bold stance than has been witnessed by ISIS in recent months.

Last month, this author theorized that the decline in activity was due to ISIS focusing on moving and integrating escapees from the January prison break into pre-existing cells in the Badia. It is possible that some of the increased activity in March—particularly the fighting in southwest Deir Ez Zor and in southern Raqqa—are a result of these cells now being reinforced. However, it’s also important to recognize that the regime appears to be moving away from some of the important operational changes it made in 2021 that helped decrease ISIS activity. The highway ambushes in January and March in Homs were the fault of the SAA command for allowing military vehicles to travel alone or in such small groups, a departure from last year’s effective strategy of moving forces in large convoys.

Security forces have also blamed the southern Raqqa battles on regime complacency, pointing out that anti-ISIS sweeps always follow the same paths in order to reduce the chance of running into mines, thus allowing ISIS the freedom to easily move around these patrols. Lastly, both the Russians and Syrians have appeared to reduce air activity in the Badia since the start of the year. This is partially due to decreased ISIS activity, which has led to fewer targets for their airframes to engage. However, it is unclear why these airplanes have not been able to respond to the prolonged ISIS attacks that occurred this month. Increased air power was the major factor in 2021 that forced ISIS to abandon large attacks on fixed positions. ISIS cells are sure to step up raids on regime checkpoints and outposts if this lack of air presence becomes a prolonged reality.

Finally, the sheep theft in Mheen marks another dangerous escalation by ISIS in southern Homs. Sheep theft has been a long-time ISIS tactic across central Syria, used to both supply its cells and bring in revenue through trade. Regardless whether ISIS sold the sheep or used them for food, the fact that they successfully moved the sheep to a new location undetected does not bode well for regime security in the region. It increasingly appears that ISIS is seeking to establish a long-term presence in this area, thereby putting the two nearby power plants and an oil refinery at risk of attack.

The locations of March’s confirmed ISIS attacks provide some insight into the current geographic concentrations of ISIS cells in the Badia. As can be seen in the map below, there were three distinct “hotspots” in March: southwest Deir Ez Zor along the Iraq border, southeast Homs between Wadi Doubayat and Tanf, and southern Raqqa between Resafa and Kawm. The Mheen countryside south of Homs City marks a fourth location where at least one ISIS cell is known to be active. The first three of these areas have been historic hotbeds of ISIS activity, all of which border territory currently or previously controlled by ISIS during its insurgency.

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Map of locatable ISIS attacks (highlighted dots) in March 2022. Not pictured is one attack that occurred somewhere in the Aleppo countryside. To view an interactive version of this map, please click here.

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*High quality attacks are defined as attacks behind frontlines, those that result in seized positions, target regime officers, involve coordinated attacks on multiple positions, fake checkpoints, ambushes on military convoys, or attacks on checkpoints that kill at least three soldiers or lead to POWs.

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