In September 2018, when the Assad regime was preparing to launch its (now on-hold) offensive against rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria, a rather surprising report emerged in the Times. The report alleged that the regime had transported 400 Isis fighters from the province of Deir Al-Zor, where the group has been under siege by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime, to the vicinity of Idlib.
Idlib had been Isis-free since 2014, when opposition fighters managed to expel the fighters that had briefly held territory. In early 2018, the group staged a brief comeback, but were once again repelled.
The Assad regime has long claimed its aim is to “fight and crush terrorism”, so the idea that it aided and abetted Isis fighters may seem shocking. But in fact, the claim of a regime-Isis deal was not the first of its kind. Over the past two years, a pattern has emerged, where the Assad regime and Isis have co-existed on the battlefield while attacking rebel forces. The two so-called enemies have struck evacuation deals, and the Assad regime has been accused of smuggling Isis fighters into rebel-held areas.
The flow of Isis fighters into rebel-held areas begins with the evacuation deals. The first one to be agreed between the regime and Isis was publicly recognised to have taken place in August 2017, with the involvement of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. A month later, another deal would be announced for the evacuation of ISIS fighters trapped in a pocket of territory in the countryside of Hama in north-west Syria, surrounded by regime-held territory. Late that month, the regime announced it had reached an agreement in which the besieged fighters would surrender.
The Assad regime claimed the deal as a victory. As reported by pro-regime media, the regime declared that Isis had been “completely defeated” in the province of Hama. On 4 October, one prominent regime-sponsored national newspaper, Al-Watan, declared that “Daesh is no longer present in Hama province” and that the Syrian Army had taken “complete control” of the region.
According to the September evacuation deal, Isis fighters would be evacuated from their besieged Hama pocket to Isis-held territory in Deir Al-Zor, some 200 miles east.
But this did not happen. Instead, military maps shared by pro-regime, opposition and neutral monitors during the subsequent period all demonstrate that the group was simply relocated a few miles further north onto the frontline with rebel forces. Looking at the maps shared by pro-regime sources, it seems that the only way Isis could move out of its besieged Hama pocket and affix itself onto the rebel frontline was by passing through regime territory – namely, a corridor in the area of Ithriyah. One media activist in the area claimed that the regime had “opened its barricades along 13 kilometers to allow Isis to cross from its control areas”, whilst moving south in exchange to take control of the vacated Isis pocket.
Viewed from this perspective, evacuation deals have not “fought and crushed terrorism”, but instead allowed the Assad regime to redirect it against rebel-held groups.
The following “before and after” maps shared by pro-regime media and outlets show the transfer of the “Isis pocket” in the northern countryside of Hama between the months of October and November 2017. The maps demonstrate how Isis would become connected with the rebel frontline through a “north-south” exchange of territory between the regime and Isis.
Map of the shrunken Isis pocket as on the 25 September 2017 – more than two weeks before the start of the Isis attack on rebels. Regime (red) control of the frontline with rebels is clearly shown. (Map produced by the pro-Assad Iranian outlet, Islamic World News – featured in an article by Al-Masdar News)
Map on 28 November 2017, showing Isis now affixed onto frontline with rebels (with the regime now controlling the frontline behind Isis lines)
Between October 2017 and January 2018, both the Assad regime and Isis launched assaults on rebel-held Idlib. The Assad regime would go on to succeed in recapturing the eastern portion of the province – home to a crucial highway linking Damascus to Aleppo, as well as critical electricity supply lines running through the area.
While Western media did cover the regime’s entry into Idlib, the simultaneous Isis incursion was far less well reported. This began on 9 October in the northern countryside of the province of Hama. The rebels preparing to fight encompassed a plethora of factions, from the extremist Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (commonly known as HTS, the successor of the former Al-Nusra Front), to the Free Syrian Army coalitions.
Once again, despite the supposed hostility between the Assad regime and Isis, pro-regime propaganda outlets unwittingly documented an effective non-aggression pact between the two sides.
Take this map, produced by the government-backed Syrian Digital Media agency. It appeared in a January 2018 article on the Damascus News Network agency, in an article that candidly declared “there have been no clashes between the Syrian Arab Army and the terrorist ‘Daesh’ organisation during the advance of the army towards Abu Dohour airport in Idlib’s countryside”. The maps clearly demonstrate the lack of clashes between the regime and Isis, with both sides focused on simultaneously attacking rebels.
And this was not an anomaly. Over the first few months of the operation, similar maps were were shared by regime-supporting outlets, such as Al-Masdar News, South Front and Muraselon. As well as pro-regime sources, similar maps showing the same developments were also shared by local pro-opposition groups as well as non-partisan monitors. This effective agreement on military developments by different sources was highlighted at the time by the UK-based group Syria Solidarity Campaign.
The maps reveal that between the months of October and February, a small and besieged Isis pocket situated east and south-east of the city of Hama was vacated, to be replaced with a new and huge Isis presence north-east of Hama. While the regime and Isis did clash in January, the main regime operation to take control of the new, larger Isis territory did not begin until February. Within four days, the Syrian regime would take control of it in its entirety – recapturing more than 100 towns, villages and hamlets. At the same time, rebels again accused the regime of facilitating the infiltration by “evacuated” Isis fighters into their territory, after arresting hundreds of suspected militants.
The tactic of using militants to sow chaos is a tried and tested one of the Assad regime: in the mid 2000s, Assad was suspected of allowing jihadis to pass through Syria in order to destabilise the US occupation of Iraq, and has regularly been accused of deliberately releasing Islamist prisoners in 2011 to undermine the idea of a democratic revolution.
But if the Assad regime is redeploying Isis fighters within Syria, it is playing with fire. Four months after the Hama deal, rebels in the southern province of Dara’a would report the systematic infiltration of Isis fighters from regime-held areas. The consequences would affect civilians in regime-held areas as well as those under control of the opposition.
The birthplace of the 2011 uprising, by the start of 2018, Dara’a was dominated by a coalition of more than 50 major Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, known as the Southern Front. In May, rebels in Dara’a claimed to have arrested Isis infiltrators. They accused the regime of attempting to use an “evacuation deal”, this time concerning the Yarmouk refugee camp and areas south of Damascus, to facilitate their entry into the southern regions.
In an interview recorded in June, a commander in the FSA’s Southern Front – whose name at the time was willingly provided, but which we have decided to withhold due to the sensitive situations of former rebel fighters who have since signed “reconciliation” agreements with the regime – declared: “The regime is trying to smuggle the Dawaesh [a pejorative term for Isis fighters used by Syrian rebels] of Southern Damascus, particularly from the Hajar Al-Aswad and Tadamon areas [adjacent to the Yarmouk refugee camp], through the province of Sweida into the direction of Dara’a”. One of the factions of the Southern Front reported capturing 19 suspected Isis fighters on 24 May at a border crossing in the area of Al-Lajat.
On the same day, another rebel commander from a different Southern Front faction reported capturing a further 20 Isis fighters at the checkpoints of the city of Eastern Mleiha, followed by a further four three days later. The commander also claimed that the Isis fighters had arrived as a result of a “deportation-transfer”.
According to this commander, Isis fighters were sorted according to importance. The rank-and-file Isis fighters were transferred to the city of Suwaida, in Sweida, where they met middlemen who took them to the eastern border of the province, and handed them over to local smugglers. They in turn took them over the border into rebel-held territory, usually to the city limits of the city of Eastern Mleiha. Higher-ranking Isis fighters – the commanders and leaders known as “emirs” – were taken in groups of three. The rebel group Jaish al-Islam reported their capture in the area of Tafas of two foreign emirs, an Algerian and a Jordanian.
The rebels’ complaints about infiltrators were largely ignored. A month later, Isis launched a massacre in the neighbouring province of Sweida.
The province of Sweida is dominated by the Druze, followers of a monotheistic faith that many consider separable from mainstream Islam. Isis views members of the heterodox Druze community as heretics. Whilst the Druze of Sweida cannot be put strictly in the same “opposition” bracket as their counterparts in Idlib and Dara’a, the area has nonetheless long resisted the imposition of full regime control. Sweida has long been a semi-autonomous province where security is controlled by local Druze militias, most important amongst them the Rijal Al-Karama or the “Men of Dignity” grouping. The group has long attempted to establish itself as a “neutral” force in the conflict – crucially, refusing to be conscripted by the regime in areas outside of Sweida.
One testimony of what happened in July 2018 has been widely circulated among activists in the province. In it, a local man in his fifties from the village of Shbeika recounts the events of the day:
“At 4.30 in the morning, they [Isis fighters] were knocking on the doors of the houses in the village: the woman or the man of the house would open the door and find the knife in the middle of their chest the moment they opened the door. Then they would slaughter the children with knives, leaving one boy to witness it, leave him terrorised so that he can relay the image. By the time the [rest of the] people found out and the sun came out, it took four hours, and they had already killed the people they had killed.”
The attacks sparked widespread anger amongst Druze locals, not just against Isis, but the regime, which was blamed for a conspicuous lack of security. Angry locals expelled the regime’s provincial governor from a funeral held for victims of the attack.
Some locals suspected the regime of being complicit in the attacks, in particular as punishment for refusing to participate in the regime’s offensive in the neighbouring province of Dara’a. During the Dara’a offensive, the “Men of Dignity” declared that they would adopt a stance of “positive neutrality in the ongoing conflict between the sons of the same nation”. Indeed, a month before the Isis attack, Russia would attempt to designate the group a “terrorist” grouping.
Understanding the political status of Sweida during the war helps explain why Isis fighters would be relocated to its vicinity instead of Deir Al-Zor. Fighters from an “evacuation deal” agreed between the Syrian regime and Isis – following the former’s recapture of the Yarmouk refugee camp and adjacent areas south of the capital Damascus in May – were evacuated in large convoys to the desert east of Sweida (known as the Badia), much to the annoyance of Druze locals. This evacuation deal was at the time additionally reported by pro-regime media – which even offered claims that regime officials had entered the Yarmouk refugee camp to directly negotiate with ISIS commanders.
The Shbeika witness’s accusation of regime complicity in the attacks went beyond one of passivity:
“The regime provided everything logistically to allow this to happen… The coordination was blatantly obvious. They withdrew their forces a month ago, they took away the weapons three days beforehand, they cut off the electricity, they put them [ISIS] to the east of Sweida, where they’ve been training for three or four months, moving them in their green buses.”
The witness even claimed that the regime had withdrawn the weapons of locals in the area a few days before the attack. Other local reports also made this accusation. The main local Druze militia in the area accused the Syrian regime of failing in its duty to protect the community, and an activist with the Suwayda 24 network told Reuters: “There was a complete absence of the Syrian Army, which was not present at all, and the people who tried to defend the area were its locals.”
The regime claimed that the Syrian Army played a key role in pushing back Isis attackers. Following the massacre however, footage began to emerge of angry Druze locals and notables confronting regime officials. In one video, an elderly Druze notable is seen asking a Syrian Army officer a series of questions: “Why were the weapons taken away three days before the attack? Why was electricity cut from this village? Why were the Dawaesh [pejorative term for Isis fighters] moved from the Yarmouk camp to here?”
Without addressing the accusations, the regime officer attempted to pacify the anger by repeating official rhetoric: “The conspiracy is on a scale bigger than you can imagine. We need to respond by strengthening our bonds, under the political and military leadership of the [Army] guys here”. At this point the officer was interrupted by an angry member of the crowd: “It is our boys that protected the area, not you”. The regime official attempted to continue – “This is a victory for Syria” – before again being rebuked by a member of the crowd: “This is a victory for the Jabal [Druze Mountain]”.
An unwitting consensus of pro-regime, pro-opposition as well as Druze sources clearly demonstrate how the regime has capitalised on evacuated Isis fighters in Idlib and Dara’a/Sweida. It remains to be seen whether in any potential future regime offensive on Idlib, we will once again see a phantom Isis presence “re-emerge out of thin air” – as one pro-regime outlet once put it– in the area.
Omar Sabbour is an independent Egyptian activist and writer. He is a member of the Syria Solidarity Campaign. Ahmed Mousa, a Syrian photojournalist and media activist in Dara’a at the time of reporting – who has since been displaced to Idlib – contributed to reporting.