Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

With friends like these

It may be bombed, spied on and infiltrated on a daily basis, but the Islamic State group has managed to survive, thanks to the help it receives even from its sworn enemies, says Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the last week of 2015, the Islamic State (IS) group and the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad struck a deal allowing thousands of the group’s fighters and their families to leave the farmland surrounding Damascus for safer zones. According to the available information, the deal was mediated by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura.

A Syrian pro-regime website,, reported that 3,000 IS combatants accompanied by 2,000 family members would be transported in buses supplied by the regime to the Raqqa Governorate, stronghold of the ultra-jihadist group, a distance of nearly 500 km.

On 24 December, reported that “sources in the Syrian Ministry of National Reconciliation said that a deal had been reached allowing fighters who swore allegiance to IS to leave the areas of Al-Qadam and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad south of Damascus for the Raqqa Governorate.”

According to the same report, the IS fighters were expected to evacuate their positions outside Damascus “within hours,” leaving the area to the Syrian army.

A Syrian ministerial source, speaking to the Russian news agency Sputnik, said that a second phase of evacuation, starting on 26 December, would involve transporting 5,000 IS fighters in the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp according to a deal “between IS leaders and the Syrian government mediated by an anonymous third party.”

The IS fighters would keep their personal weapons during the trip to Raqqa, according to the source, but their heavy weapons would be destroyed ahead of their departure. Both the Russian government-funded RT television channel and the Russian news agency Sputnik carried similar reports.

Speaking to RT, Ahmed Al-Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee, denied reports that the PLO had mediated the deal and claimed that the office of de Mistura had been in charge of the mediation.

But the deal was not carried out according to schedule. On 30 December,, the website of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah’s television channel of the same name, reported that the evacuation of IS fighters from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad and Hayy Al-Qadam in south Damascus had been put on hold after the killing of Zahran Alloush, a commander in the Army of Islam group, on 25 December.

In the same report, the website said the evacuation was expected to take place “in a few days,” pending agreement on a route that did not pass through the area controlled by the Army of Islam.

IS fighters are not the only ones leaving the area around Damascus in droves. Al-Nusra Front, another ultra-jihadist group, is also talking with the Syrian government about moving its gunmen from the area around Damascus to Idlib in northern Syria, the Hizbullah television website reported.

This goes to show that while IS may be the bane of the civilised world, the civilised world is not above talking to it, and helping it if needed, for tactical or strategic purposes. The Damascus deal shows that the Russians, the UN and perhaps also the Americans are willing to turn the other cheek, or at least a blind eye, when needed.

With foes like these, IS has no need of friends.

FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES: Examining the deal with IS in south Damascus, it becomes harder to overlook the persistent contradictions between what the international community says and what it does.

Since it came to world attention with the land grabs of early summer 2014, IS has been in the sights of the international community. The US and its coalition allies claim to have waged nearly 9,000 air strikes against the group since August 2014.

If Western official reports are to be believed, the air strikes on IS positions in Iraq and Syria must have cost the group more than $5 billion. The raids destroyed arms depots and command and training centres, and killed dozens of commanders and hundreds of fighters.

The French have also waged several waves of air strikes against IS since the Paris attacks in November and have stationed an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean to back their anti-IS campaign.

The Russians, staking their reputation on a forceful military campaign, also claim to have mounted hundreds of raids against IS. If one is to believe Moscow’s official accounts, IS sustained more damage in the past two months than the US-led coalition inflicted in over a year. Russian airplanes mowed down hundreds of IS fighters and destroyed 80 per cent of the group’s infrastructure, Moscow claimed.

So why is IS prospering against the odds? One reason is that it is still managing to sell a lot of oil to the presumably hostile Syrian regime, as well as other middlemen operating in Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

A US treasury official once described IS as the world’s best-funded terror group. This is hardly off the mark, since IS, Western sources believe, is making anywhere between $1 million and $4 million a day, a significant part of which is from oil sales.

IS controls areas containing about 70 per cent of Syria’s oil fields, and it is transporting massive quantities of oil from Syria to Iraq by tankers. Once in Iraq, the oil is sent across Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq and southeast Turkey to northern Iran. It is then sold through an intricate network of intermediaries to nearby markets.

The Syrian regime is also rumoured to be buying some IS oil to cover its energy needs, and remarkably the group has not cut off oil pipelines extending from its areas to those controlled by the regime.

Opposition sources say that technical teams from the Syrian government have visited the IS-controlled city of Deir Al-Zur more than once and carried out repair work on the gas pipes in Al-Moray’iha, a town in the Deir Al-Zur Governorate.

Syrian government teams have also fixed the pumps of the Euphrates Dam, which is controlled by IS. Sources close to the regime admit that the regime is buying oil from IS through intermediaries. Recently, the US Treasury Department blacklisted four Syrians and Russians for acting as intermediaries in IS oil deals.

Other sources of cash include the sale of antiquities, abducting people for ransom, customs on merchandise going through IS territories, and an income tax of 2.5 per cent on the local population. The total funds IS raised through taxes and confiscations in 2014 was $500 million, according to intelligence sources.

Meanwhile, despite all the anti-terror rantings of the Syrian regime, it has never fought one serious battle against IS. Nor has IS made fighting the regime a priority. In fact, the group gained much ground when the regime pulled out its troops without a fight from areas the ultra-jihadist group had set its eyes on. Deir Al-Zur, Raqqa and Palmyra were practically handed over to IS.

According to opposition forces, the regime has aided and abetted IS because it needs a bogeymen with which to intimidate the West and justify its brutality against the local population. Judging by the current tilt of international diplomacy, the ruse seems to be working.

Fawwaz Tallo, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, is convinced that former pro-regime militiamen are operating under IS command. In 2012, Tallo said, the regime employed militias operating against revolutionaries in northern Syria.

When they lost the war there, the pro-regime combatants got together and formed a group called the Dawud Brigade. For a while they pretended to be part of the opposition, but then started carrying out robberies and were soon expelled from the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Members of the Brigade then grew their beards and started imposing Sharia law and flogging their opponents. Eventually, they swore allegiance to IS.

“This gives you an insight into the true composition of IS,” Tallo said.

A SHARE-HOLDING OPERATION: IS can be seen as a type of share-holding company, with its various shareholders wanting to see some return on their investment.

 This may be a surrealistic image, but it is not so far from the truth that one observes in Iraq and Syria today. Many people benefit from the continued presence of IS in these countries, and those who benefit most are actively helping the ultra-jihadist group to stay alive.

Soleiman Youssef, a Syrian opposition member, believes that IS has many collaborators. “Some provide it with money, others with weapons and others still with men,” Youssef said. “Some buy oil, others open training camps, and others keep their borders open to fighters or offer intelligence.”

Reports linking IS with the disbanded former ruling Iraqi Baath Party are common, and some analysts speculate on the group’s connections with the Syrian and Iranian intelligence services. If these stopped helping IS, it would soon crumble, some say.

One of the proponents of this point of view is Sayeed Moqbil, a member of the Syrian opposition. The Iraqis released “hundreds of Al-Qaeda members from Iraqi prisons and sent them to Syria and then smuggled weapons to them across the borders,” Moqbil said, adding that he is convinced that Russian intelligence services purposely sent Chechen extremists to fight in Syria.

With “terror groups fighting in the name of Islam” appearing across the region, the leading powers may be better disposed to save the Al-Assad regime and give Iran a say in regional affairs in return for promises of peace, he said.

Fayez Sara, a leading figure in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, sees connections between IS and the Syrian regime. “The war on IS must not be separated from the war against the Al-Assad regime,” Sara said.

There is no hard evidence of collaboration between IS and the regime, and yet their common interests are undeniable, Sara added.

“The actions of the Al-Assad regime were the main reason for the rise of extremism and terror in Syria, and the killing and destruction the regime caused fuelled the counter-violence,” he said.

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