DEALING WITH THE DEVIL: Assad’s ISIS entanglement

A scene from the SAA advance trough the Uqayribat pocket in Augist, 2017

Author: Ventsislav Bozhev
Edited by: Aleksandar Stoyanov

On February 9th a large number of Islamic State (IS) fighters surprisingly appeared south of Abu al-Douhur airbase in Idlib province in the contact zone between the government army and the Al Qaeda linked jihadist group of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and forces of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Salafi jihadists strode in a blitz maneuver, seizing several settlements along the vital parallel road, linking Hama with Abu al Dahur via Qasr ibn Wardan – an ancient Byzantine fortress, which has stood a silent witness to the rising tension between the pro-Government forces and the rebel-Islamist opposition.

The attack came as a shocking repeat of a scenario, which had unraveled only a few dozen kilometers to the east, near the town of Abu Ghar in October 2017 and again near the town of Suruj in November 2017.

To further complicate the matter, IS’ 9th February attack happened on the exact same spot where a few days before, the rebel-Islamist forces of HTS and FSA have been conducting a successful local offensive against the positions of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In less than 24 hours the IS jihadists managed to push HTS from a few settlements. It was a day later and at the cost of many casualties by the defending forces when the offensive was stopped in the vicinity of Umm al-Khalakhil. The village itself is a mini-crossroad center with important local value. Control over it would allow IS to establish a solid presence in the border area between the provinces of Idlib and Hama.

Eventually, after four days of almost nonstop violent clashes, the HTS and FSA detachments prevailed, forcing 300-400 militants to surrender along with their families. Thus, the territorial gains of IS in Central Syria were permanently eradicated for the first time since 2015.

However, it is curious how the Islamic State was able to reach Umm al-Khalakhil. Its offensive occurred on the same day when the government army and its allies finally asserted full control over the former IS territory in the area between the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Hama (e.g. the pocket established in November 2017 – ed. note) in direct proximity to Umm al-Khalakil. Between 1st and 9th of February the IS forces retreated from some 1000 km2 of territory and about 80 settlements, leaving them to the SAA without putting up any resistance.

The natural assumption is that some kind of a deal for joint action against HTS and the FSA must have been brokered between the government army and the Islamic State. Reaching Um al-Khalakhil could have happened only by passage via heavily guarded areas, controlled by the Syrian army and its allied militias. What is even more interesting is that this scenario repeats for the fifth time within a year. But let’s take a closer look a little back in time.

The ISIS ‘pocket’ track trough Syria July 2017 – February 2018

In the summer of 2017 the regime forces were in the midst of a large-scale offensive against Islamic State. In the spring, Damascus’ offense against Palmyra finally achieved its goal, after Russian mercenaries and paramilitary groups spearheaded the advance east of the Tayfur (T4) military airfield.

The fall of Palmyra left a considerable IS contingent trapped between the advancing government forces around the Jabal Abu Rujmayn mountain in central Syria – a region rich of oil and gas fields. Intense fighting to destroy the jihadist pocket dragged on throughout the summer. It is at that point where Damascus struck its first deal with the Devil. Parallel to the offensive against IS in central Syria, the government was carrying out a mopping up operation along the Lebanese border.

After bringing down most of IS and Nusra’s (now HTS – ed. note) positions, the Assad administration decided to allow 150-200 ISIS fighters and their families to depart eastward toward Deir ez-Zor province, then still largely held by the jihadists. Along the way, in the vicinity of Furqlus and Ayfir, many of those people shifted north and joined the ISIS pocket around Uqayribat.

In mid-August, while the 5th Corps and the elite pro-government militia known as the “Tiger” forces were advancing towards Euphrates river and Deir ez-Zor, the government army was also conducting successful assault against IS westward – in the border area between Hama and Homs governorates.

Supported by the Russian air force, the Qalamoun Shield Forces, the Palestinian brigade of Liwa al-Quds and some local tribal factions, the Syrian Arab Army managed to surround completely all militants in the remote desert area east from Salamya and south from the Homs – Raqqa main road. In the next few weeks the government army advanced, shrinking the jihadist pocket. The IS combatants fought fiercely, but only until they lost the key town of Uqayribat.

It may have been at that time when the second deal between the surrounded units of IS and the government army took place. The reason to believe in such a deal is because from then on, the jihadists were retreating almost without resistance from all settlements under their control in Central Syria. In the end of September, the Uqayribat pocket was officially proclaimed eradicated.

Unofficially, government sources spoke of continuing ISIS presence just south of the Ithriya-Hama highway, in an area, that was supposed to be carefully watched by the SAA, since the highway was, at the time, the only major supply line for the Government forces in the Aleppo province.

The first ISIS pocket facing HTS near Rahjan and Abu Lafah, 8-10th October, 2017

On October 6th the high command of the SAA announced that the operation in Homs has been completed with full success. Some 1800 km2 were freed from the presence of the Islamic State, and the pro-government media outlets exulted over the major achievement.

However, only two days later the IS forces, that should have been destroyed or captured, actually emerged again. This new advance took place only 50 km north of Uqayribat and close to Al Saan, or otherwise said – the frontline between the regime army and the joint forces of Hayat Tahrair al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army. This was the first case in which ISIS forces freely moved through government-held area, even crossing the Ithriya-Hama highway. In a swift advance, the IS captured dozen villages from the unexpecting Islamist and rebel forces around Abu Ghar and Rahjan.

This prompted the intervention of HTS, who brought in fresh forces and occupied the entire area, using the fight against ISIS as an excuse to oust other opposition groups.  The HTS-IS struggle would continue for a month around Abu Lafah, until on the 8th November 2017, HTS proclaimed victory, after the ISIS fighters were reportedly beaten back into government held areas.

Their success was short-lived though, since a day after, the SAA and its allies began their own offensive on the exact same spot, where previous IS positions stood.

The second ISIS pocket facing HTS – 28th November, 2018

At the end of November, the Syrian army launched a new offensive northward towards the strategic Abu al-Duhur airfield in Idlib province. Abu Lafah was one of the first settlements to be targeted and captured. And while the regime army was progressing with minimal success, the IS forces again appeared mysteriously at the right moment. This time they pushed HTS out from Suruj on the main road between Aleppo and Hama, 30 km. west from Abu Lafah.

The presence of IS in this area forced HTS to engage a large number of combatants and resources as well. A fact that granted opportunity of the SAA to unfold its offensive. The arrival of new reinforcements from the “Tiger” forces, which took the initiative, gave a further impetus to the progress towards Abu al-Duhur.

Even if they didn’t act in a coordinated way (at least in appearance) IS and the SAA attacked HTS without any serious clashes between them. The only significant exception was a surprise attack of IS units in a attempt to break through the government defensive lines around the town of Sinjar. Eventually, the SAA captured Abu al-Duhur and the Islamic State forces once again occupied territory at the expense of HTS and the rebel-islamist opposition, leaving itself surrounded by the regime army in a pocket. This situation continued until February 9th when the same pocket disappeared only to pop up again in convenient place for the Syrian army – once more against HTS and far enough (but not too far) from the Turkish observation posts, that have been established recently in Idlib.

The interesting issue here is, that no matter how obvious it was that the IS units constantly passed unchecked through government held territory, somehow the issue still went under the mainstream media radar. While in 2017 all sorts of media were reporting on the Kurdish deals with Islamic State in the last days of the battles for Raqqa and Tabqa[1], now it seems no one notices the curious cooperation between the Syrian army and IS. On the contrary, it has been concealed and renounced.

Pro-government media even reported that the IS militants had made their way out of the pocket by force, though no actual footage of any fighting has been presented.[2] In addition, pro-government media fail to mention how this has been the third consecutive time, in which pro-Assad offensives go hand in hand with ISIS advances.

In this particular situation, the SAA might have had the opportunity to achieve two main objectives. The first one of course is to let some of the regime enemies fight each other, and for Islamic State to weaken the positions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army. The second goal was that after IS conquers some territory, the SAA could legitimately take it without breaking their tacit agreement with Turkey not to advance into the Idlib deescalation zone.

Of course, these objectives were not reached. The Syrian command would hardly have expected such quick collapse and surrender of the IS combatants given their successful operations against HTS so far. Here, no credit can be given to the military intelligence which most probably has been misled for the real strength of the IS units. Looking at the issue from another perspective, the en mass surrender of IS fighters much resembles a few similar cases, which took part in Iraq and served as a tool to distract the groups enemies from far more important processes, takin place elsewhere.

Only time will tell whether the fifth deal between Damascus and IS was a failure or something else completely. It is essential to remember that the ISIS surrender near Maarat al Numan came at the same time when Israel struck the joint Syria-Iran facilities and when Turkey proclaimed its intention to extend its military cordon in the Idlib province.



[1] A BBC investigation revealed an agreement between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Islamic State for the evacuation from Raqqah of over 4000 jihadists along with their families and weapons.


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