Why defeating Jabhat al Nosra is a top priority for Assad rather than ISIS?

For Assad defeating al-Qaeda and its allies, rather than ISIS, is a top priority: ISIS is a “marionette”.

Many speculations have been voiced concerning the reasons why Russia, Syria, Iran and the “Hezbollah” Lebanon attack mainly but not exclusively al-Qaeda fi bilad al-Sham (Jabhat al-Nusra) and its allies among the Syrian opposition rather than attacking the so-called “Islamic state” group, also known as “ISIS”, “ISIL”, “IS” or “Daesh”. For years, numerous Middle Eastern analysts and other academics consciously believed that a sort of “alliance exists between Assad and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”. This sort of ignorance in Middle Eastern dynamic emanates from a long lasting “conspiracy theory” that managed to affect prestigious media and research publications worldwide.

Nonetheless, the Syrian Army’ command, and now its allies, has avoided clashing with ISIS in many occasions, when unnecessary, on several fronts. In few words, ISIS is said to be “much easier and less urgent to defeat than al-Qaeda in Syria”. Also, as key players in the Middle East and the United States of America have all benefitted from ISIS presence and expansion in Syria and Iraq for various reasons, so Assad and his allies did.

The answer to such a strategy comes from one of the highest decision maker of the joint operations room in Damascus that includes Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah Lebanon (3+1 which is different from the one in Baghdad, called 4+1 as it includes Iraq).

The reasons that pushed the Syrian regime and its allies not to concentrate all efforts against ISIS are multiple and most importantly:

  • ISIS is, in theory, the enemy of all countries and organizations. Most decision makers in the region and around the World consider ISIS as a virus that should be uprooted sooner or later. Many regional countries involved in the war in Syria prefer to keep a distance from it and avoid having their name involved with ISIS. Therefore, it is a problem for most.
  • ISIS has no regional or international political horizon. Therefore, the group is excluded from any potential settlement in Syria, Iraq or in any country it has a presence. Moreover, ISIS is working hard to attract as many enemies as possible, attacking every one and every organization that doesn’t accept its governance, even those who have the same identical ideology and creed, like al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.
  • It has no political cover up or umbrella for its existence or doing by any country and no one can support ISIS publicly or in secrecy.
  • ISIS is no longer directly financed by any country or organization. The group is self-financed through the resources obtained from the sale of stolen oil and ancient archaeology, the imposition of local taxes, looted banks, access to bank information and data on wealthy people living under its control, on what the group calls “spoil of war” and other income from Zakat (under different forms rather than currencies). Now that ISIS finance is under scrutiny, the greatest of its resources remain and spin within the orbit of its controlled areas.
  • ISIS is not getting any training for its fighters out of the region. The U.S, U.K, the Arabs and bordering countries to Syria and Iraq do not offer ISIS any direct military assistance, neither they provide the group with new lethal weapon. ISIS is suffering from lack of military equipment and recruit of forced. It is forced to buy weapons off the black market at a very high price.
  • ISIS is not enjoying from the services of different joint military operation rooms, providing intelligence information, planning attacks, guiding its forces on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, assisting in the updating of a Bank of objectives of enemy forces on the ground to counter attack, and overtly facilitating medical assistance, logistics and movement of the fighters through borders to direct attacks.
  • ISIS won’t be affected by any political gains or losses on future negotiating table in Vienna or Geneva or New York.
  • ISIS is much easier to defeat because it has no local support and did not manage to integrate itself among the population in Syria. The main ISIS chain of command in Syria is made of non-Syrians, creating a less acceptable image to the population.

In the light of the above, the commander added:” At the moment why the Syrian army, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah would waste one single unnecessary bullet against ISIS unless it is strategically rewarding? If we see how the Kurdish forces are advancing in ISIS land on the northern front, with the support of the U.S Air Force, we understand that the power of ISIS is more propagandist rather than effective when confronted with an ideological force, determine to fight and hold the ground. The military Kurdish force’ progress occupying land and attacking ISIS in the North of Syria is welcomed by Damascus and doesn’t provoke it. The Kurds are advancing in an Arab area and have all the benefit to establish a harmonious relationship with the local tribes who also are against ISIS. It is engaging ISIS more and dispersing its military effort on several fronts. Moreover, ISIS does not exist in areas considered vital and rich like Idlib, Homs and the suburbs where the population is against the regime and supports the rebels. ISIS controls oil fields in the East and the North of Syria. These can be retaken. It is dominating a population in Raqqa and around it that suffers from its tyranny. The group is due to self-disintegrate and return a much smaller underground group and can be defeated when other stronger enemies and serious threat are eliminated first. On top of these enemies is al-Qaeda fi Bilad-al-Sham, or Jabhat al-Nusra”.

“From our side, we want to establish a demarcation line with ISIS and will refrain from carrying out large military operations against the group to spare our forces (the military engagement) for other more strategic fronts. If we look at what happen in the offensive in reef Homs, like Mheen and Haw’wareen, we have retaken the two cities only because ISIS’s presence represents a possible threat to Homs. These were retaken and consolidated by “al-Redha” forces to create a defensive line that can be used in the future for when we decide to advance further in the area. In Kuweiress also, we have enlarged the corridor to create a safe perimeter to the airport so it can be used in the future for further larger military operations. To conclude, everything that ISIS doesn’t enjoy from, is, on the other hand, offered to the rebels and al-Qaeda in Syria”, the source said.

On what happen in Mheen where the Syrian Army pulled out after ISIS counter attacked, the source explained: “When we see a concentration of forces coming together to attack a city or a village or a hill, in many cases it is better to avoid any infantry engagement, pull out forces and allow the air force to decimate or eliminate as many of the attacking groups as possible. We have adopted this plan in many locations and have managed, with little effort, to regain control of lost territories, inflicting a large number of killed among the assaulting forces. The presence of a Russian Air Force accurate bombing is creating a real difference. Therefore, we hold the ground when necessary and possible. We try to reduce the loss of infantry and avoid unnecessary confrontation when there is no need too. ISIS animosity against the Syrian rebels is highly beneficial to us and we take as much advantage as possible from it as long as no alliance or cessation of hostility is reached between Baghdadi and al-Qaeda”.

“On the other hand, Al-Qaeda in Syria (or the Levant, Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham and all the Jihadists salafist who are happy to establish an Islamic Emirates like the “Army of Islam” and the “Army of conquest”, all these get physical, military and training support from abroad. Intelligence and signals information, logistical facilities and lethal new weapons are placed at their service. Not only the regional countries, but also the United States and allies use these forces, directly or indirectly, as a Trojan horse, to hit the Syrian regime. Any conquered land, that was previously under their control, is considered a gain at the political negotiating table”, said the commander.

When the Syrian regime objected to the American, French and British air strikes without coordinating with Damascus, Russia told President Bashar al-Assad:” Let them continue depleting and contain ISIS and you concentrate on fighting al-Qaeda and its allies. The time is not yet ripe for the objection of their doing”. So the military focus was more on the opposition side, hitting vital strategic areas that represent a real danger to the State of Syria like the access to the Mediterranean, and the reefs of Latakia, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and the borders with Turkey.

“Officially, Russia has declared al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-sham and all the salafist jihadists as terrorists, rejecting any presence of these groups at the negotiating table. This is exactly what Mr Assad declared throughout the years of war. Russia is asking from the international community to define those groups considered non-terrorists. For these reasons, the war on al-Qaeda and its allies, wherever these are present on any fronts, and the gain or loss of territories controlled by these groups represent an important factor for the Syrian regime and for the World on the political settlement discussed on the negotiation table. We shall continue making the necessary efforts to concentrate all military power against these and, simultaneously, keep an eye on ISIS, at the moment. The self-declared “Islamic State” group is second on the scale of menace as it will not survive for very long as it is in the current size and strength. It is much easier to defeat and its danger is disproportionate”, he concluded.

Politically, ISIS “war on everybody” has been beneficial not only to Assad and his allies – even if the proportions and the comparison is not the issue here – but also to many players in the Middle East. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan have contributed, directly and indirectly, to the growth of ISIS to reduce the power of the “shia and alawites crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon), to remove Assad from power (cut the military supply line between Iran and Hezbollah and all facilities offered to Hezbollah in Syria, allow Qatar Gas to transit via Syria and Turkey to Europe instead of the Iranian gas (deal signed with Iran rather than Qatar in July 2011), reduce the danger of the Syrian Army to Israel, impose a Turkish influence over Syria or even reshape the map of Syria) and to give the power to the Sunni majority in the Levant.

The United States have also profited from the growth of ISIS. It has allowed the U.S forces to return stronger than ever to Mesopotamia; benefit from the sale of arms to Iraq; indirectly forced Iraqi key players to carry a peaceful coup d’état against Iran’ favorite candidate the ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; welcomed a friendly new Prime Minister in Baghdad, Haider al-Abadi, created a possibility to the Iraqi Kurds to call for independency from the central command in Baghdad, allowed Turkey to invade Iraq and establish itself in Ba’shiqa north of Mosul to participate to the liberation of the city and claim a share in the North of Iraq; increase its financial and military investment in Kurdistan. The raise of ISIS, indirectly, allowed the U.S to regain a positive military image – shaken in Afghanistan and after the Iraq war – in the Middle East by running a new kind of war with no human losses. Moreover, ISIS is exhausting Iran’s finance that is injected to support Syria with oil and cash to pay salaries and keep the various institutions standing and functioning. For the second time since the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran is sending troops abroad to fight in thousands and not only a limited number of tens or hundreds of advisors. Also, Hezbollah Lebanon is fully engaged in Syria where thousands of men have been killed and injured. Iran is also financing all costs. And last, the United States hope that Russia gets more engaged in Syria, “dirty” its hand in one way or another and ultimately fail in fully supporting Assad and its allies to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda and allies. In all that, ISIS is a killing machine, an angry elephant in a Porcelain shop, but also “a marionette”.

This article was originally published by Al-Raï on January 7, 2016 (Elijah J. Magnier, Al Rai Chief International war Correspondent) and is reprinted here with permission.

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