By Ty Joplin
For the ISIS fighters surrounded on all sides in Deir Ezzour, Syria, they likely understand that they are making their last stand in the desert. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. and Iraqi airpower, have launched their final operation to unroot ISIS from southeastern Syria, and are slowly closing in.
But on the night of September 23, hundreds of ISIS fighters were reportedly spared and secretly bused out of the conflict zone according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Driving to Idlib through the night from Deir Ezzor, 400 ISIS members were saved by Syrian regime forces in a move experts say is intended to undermine the demilitarization deal brokered by Russia and Turkey for Idlib and provide a justification for violently re-taking the region.
Syrian regime forces were preparing for an all-out assault on Idlib, the last major opposition holdout left in the wartorn country, but were stopped by a last-minute deal brokered by Turkey and Russia, which called for a buffer zone to be created inside the region.
Turkey was given the onus of removing opposition groups from the frontlines and disarming others by October 15. But as the deadline approaches, Assad’s transfer of 400 ISIS fighters threatens to destabilize the demilitarization deal, further dividing already splintering opposition and jihadi groups in Idlib.
Why Assad Transferred 400 ISIS Members into Idlib
The temporary peace inside Idlib hinges on Turkey’s ability to enforce the terms of the demilitarization deal. The rebel groups inside Idlib have been slowly disintegrating and drifting apart from one another as the war drags on in Assad’s favor, making Turkey’s job more difficult.
By shipping in 400 members of ISIS, a group opposed by many inside Idlib, the regime is looking to exacerbate those divisions and accelerate splits between them: divide and conquer.
“Assad is playing the same game he’s been playing since the beginning of the war: taking advantage of conflicts between opposition factions and adding fuel to the fire when he can to have them weaken each other,” said Alex Decina, a researcher at the Amman-based WANA Institute, in an interview with Al Bawaba.
Turkish forces near the Turkey-Syria border (AFP/FILE)
“In this instance, the regime is likely hoping to facilitate a violent internal conflict within Hay‘at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—the most powerful group in Idlib,” he added.
The transfer comes at a time when HTS is struggling with internal negotiations on whether to accept or reject the terms of the demilitarization deal.
HTS is an umbrella group operating in Idlib, which includes thousands of members of the former al-Qaeda aligned-Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, also previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra. Its leadership is reportedly still deliberating whether to accept the terms of the demilitarization deal and acquiescence to Turkey, but reports suggest the group is suffering from internal divisions. HTS announced it was reorganizing its armed divisions into three new armies deployed across Idlib in an apparent attempt to integrate the groups who were shipped into Idlib from other provinces, including Eastern Ghouta and Deraa.
On top of that, in February 2018, Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement announced they were splitting from HTS and formering their own group called Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (JTS). Sporadic clashes between JTS and HTS erupted and carried on until April. Another hardliner group, Huras al-Din, broke with HTS and have reportedly rejected the terms of the demilitarization deal.
In other words, the unity of HTS has been slowly breaking down. So too has its ability to control loose coalition of other opposition groups within the region. Turkey has maintained a limited working partnership with HTS to facilitate its own military administration of the region and some of its groups.
“If the influx of ISIS fighters strengthens the position of HTS’s hardliners, then the group’s internal conflict is more likely to be resolved with violence than negotiations. If this results in another round of major intra-opposition fighting, factions in Idlib will be weaker and more vulnerable to future regime operations,” Decina noted.
The regime transfer of ISIS fighters into Idlib also destabilizes what little control Turkey has been able to exert over the region.
“If chaos erupts in Idlib it will be harder for Turkey to control the rebel factions,” argued Pieter Van Ostaeyen, an independent jihadi researcher and historian.
“The regime clearly knows that deporting ISIS members to Idlib will lead to more infighting between the rebels.”
Both Van Ostaeyen and Decina speculated that ISIS may find the hardline group Huras al-Din to be a strategic ally in the region due to their anti-Turkish stance. For its part, Turkey will now have a much more difficult task of disarming groups that may be ISIS-aligned, and may have to resort to violence.
In addition, the entrance of hundreds of ISIS fighters provides the regime and its allies with a pretext to dismiss the ceasefire and attack Idlib under the guise of an anti-ISIS operation, no matter how much control Turkey can exert over opposition and jihadi groups. “This move by the regime could be seen as a way to toughen the task for the Turks. If the [Oct. 15] deadline isn't made it will give the regime, Russians and Shi'a militias a pretext to attack Idlib anyway,” said Van Ostaeyen.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly called Idlib a nestbed of terrorism and vowed to purge it. Rather than merely falsely claiming that there is ISIS in an targeted area to justify an attack on it, the Syrian regime appears to have simply put ISIS fighters there.
Now that there may an actual ISIS presence that goes beyond disparate sleeper cells, Russia, Iran and Syria have more credibility to the claim that ISIS has found a safe haven in Idlib, even if Assad was the one to provide it to them in the first place.
In terms of propaganda, every side in the conflict has conjured the specter of ISIS to justify continued or expanded military operations. The U.S. claimed, in contradiction of its own previous reports, that up to 32,000 ISIS fighters remain active in the region. Iranian, Turkish and Syrian propaganda have all falsely claimed operations against opposition fighters were really against ISIS groups even if they had no presence in the areas targeted.
Russia justified its incursion into Syria to save the Assad regime under the guise of anti-ISIS operations, even as they disproportionately targeted opposition forces.
What Happens Next
A man digs a cave as a last ditch form of shelter in Idlib, September 2018 (AFP/FILE)
It remains to be seen whether ISIS’ presence will have a direct impact on the demilitarization deal, but there appears to be little stopping Assad from sending more waves of ISIS fighters into Idlib to accelerate the region’s descent into disorder.
The demilitarization deal was largely brokered by Russia and Turkey in order to avoid a massive humanitarian catastrophe. Idlib is home to about three million civilians, half of whom are internally displaced refugees from other parts of the country. They are all but trapped there; Turkey has closed its borders to them, and there is no other opposition-held area that is capable of housing them.
The international community warned that any military assault on Idlib could easily turn into the war’s most severe humanitarian crisis. The Syrian regime appears unconcerned with that as it is building a precept to justify restarting the assault.
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