Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1360, (14 - 20 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Investing in IS

Suspicions are growing of a secret deal between the Islamic State terrorist group, Iran and the Syrian regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


Investing in IS
Investing in IS

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Some observers have long entertained suspicions of a secret relationship between the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group and Iran, and therefore implicitly also the Syrian regime.

Accusations that these parties blatantly serve one another through their respective military and media strategies are equally familiar. As if to crown such charges, Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led anti-IS Coalition, announced last week that on 8 September the coalition had spotted an IS convoy trying to pass from eastern Syria into Iraq and that Syrian regime forces had made no attempt to stop it even though it passed close to their camps.

On 28 August, the Iran-linked Lebanese Hizbullah group also concluded a deal allowing IS forces to vacate the Syrian-Lebanese border region after a prisoner-exchange deal, although the Lebanese soldiers that the Lebanese had thought were being held as captives were turned over to Hizbullah as corpses.

Several days before the deal became public knowledge, Hizbullah announced that some 50 IS commanders had surrendered to it. Hizbullah’s “military media” published their pictures and televised interviews, after which news of them disappeared.

One of the commanders called on opposition fighters in Syria to agree to a reconciliation process and turn themselves in to Hizbullah and the Syrian army. Another said that Syrian opposition fighters should surrender in order to “make it easier to get rid of terrorists”. A third of the IS interviewees stated that the remaining IS fighters in the Syrian-Lebanese border area were preparing to leave.

After the convoy of IS fighters that concluded the deal with Hizbullah left for eastern Syria, 113 IS members announced that they had joined forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. According to news reports, the regime has guaranteed the safety of the families of fighters who enlisted with its forces in the town of Palmyra. 

The convoy containing the rest of the fighters continued towards Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syria. The US-led coalition announced that it had split into two and that one group had remained in the desert while the other had returned to regime-controlled territory. Coalition forces attacked the group that had remained in the desert, killing 85, destroying 40 vehicles and preventing the rest from proceeding eastwards towards the Iraqi border.

Tehran and Hizbullah condemned the coalition’s bombardment of the IS convoy because it was carrying family members of the fighters. The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement stressing the need to differentiate between the war against IS and killing innocent people. It described the attack as a “humanitarian disaster” that would “contribute to the spread of violence in the region”.

This is the same Iranian regime whose soldiers and affiliated militias, together with Syrian regime forces, have killed hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, including tens of thousands of children. According to Western sources, two Iranian military commanders were travelling incognito in the IS convoy.

Meanwhile, sources in Daraa in southern Syria reported earlier this month that Syrian regime helicopters had transported IS fighters from the Qalamoun region between Syria and Lebanon to IS-controlled areas in the Yarmouk Valley. They warned that the IS fighters had drones capable of dropping bombs on opposition forces in those areas.

Military and civilian sources said that Syrian regime helicopters had transported around 150 IS fighters to the Shajara village, which is controlled by the IS-affiliated Khaled bin Walid Army. Electricity cuts and an Internet blackout occurred across the area at the time, and opposition military sources who had trained in Jordan said that the regime was planning to lift the siege around IS in order to link it to regime-controlled areas.

It is no surprise that Syrian regime and Hizbullah militias should coordinate to relocate IS fighters from western to eastern Syria, that half of these would switch to the ranks of the regime and Hizbullah forces, and that some of these would be airlifted to IS camps in southern Syria.

What is surprising is the international silence since this relocation operation of hundreds of IS terrorists proceeded across 500 km of desert in complete safety and with the official protection of Syrian regime forces on the ground and Russian air cover. US commander Stephen Townsend made a point of saying that the coalition had only “obstructed” the arrival of the IS convoy in Deir Al-Zor because of the presence of civilians in it.

The deal between Hizbullah and IS with the approval of the Syrian regime raises questions about the party that brokered it. Such operations require a mediator trusted by both sides, but thus far the identity of that party remains a mystery. This raises the question of what lies behind the trust between IS and Hizbullah, given that IS mercenaries had no misgivings about travelling in convoy across Syria in broad daylight.  

IS has been hostile to the armed Syrian opposition since 2013. Areas of the country that have returned to the control of the Syrian regime have been recovered thanks to IS, which has driven out Syrian opposition forces using excessive force. It has meted out acts of cruelty and destruction against local communities and infrastructure as a way to “punish” residents, after which its forces have withdrawn following illusory battles or sometimes without putting up a fight at all and simply allowing Syrian regime forces to move in.

IS is not only an instrument cultivated by the Syrian regime to set against Syrian revolutionary forces. It has also been an important investment for Iran, as well as for other international and regional parties with conflicting interests in Syria.

This “virtual” enemy has remained out of the crosshairs of the two most powerful nations involved in the Syrian crisis: Russia and the US. In 2014, IS forces were able to shift huge quantities of heavy military hardware, including Scud missiles, over a period of several days from Mosul to Raqqa, a distance of 600 km, without triggering any reaction from US or Russian aircraft. This was in spite of the fact that the ostensible reason behind these two powers’ military presence in Syria is to fight IS.

The events that followed the IS convoy’s departure from Jroud Arsal in Lebanon in accordance with the Syrian-approved deal struck between Hizbullah and IS, and specifically the US obstruction of the convoy, followed soon afterwards by a Russian response, clearly point to differences between those invested in IS.

Questions now hang over the future of this organisation which has lost or is losing its bases in Syria and Iraq.

Since 2013, the international parties with the strongest military influence in Syria have given IS the leeway to expand in Syria in order to set up its “caliphate” and wreak attrition on the revolutionary forces. It now appears that these same parties are now fighting each other in order to promote IS.

There is an intelligence dimension to how IS is being used by the Syrian regime, Iran and other regional and international players. All of these want to exploit the Syrian people’s fear of IS in order to acquire a greater presence on the ground.

The Iranians wanted to send over IS fighters in order to strengthen the organisation’s hold on Deir Al-Zor, which it has controlled for three years. The Russians supported this, backed by Syrian regime forces. However, these moves annoyed the Americans, who want their Kurdish allies to head to Deir Al-Zor. This conflict of interests has forced the game out into the open.

The coordination between Iran, Hizbullah and the Syrian regime, on the one hand, and IS, on the other, is not unprecedented or the only kind of collaboration that exists. A military relationship serves their respective strategic interests on the ground, and an economic relationship allows for the shipping of oil and gas.

The need to protect Lebanon’s border with Syria and manage day-to-day concerns within the region also call for at least indirect military and security cooperation.

Iran and the Syrian regime are banking on their shares in IS. However, since the latter is open to many investors, the Iranian gamble will not succeed. Most likely, a modified version of IS will emerge, and this will put paid to the Iranian bet as it will rely on other more influential intelligence circles.

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