It is bitterly ironic that just as Iraq announced the liberation of Tal Afar and Nineveh province, hundreds of new Daesh fighters are being brought into this same locality on the Syria-Iraq border. Unsurprisingly, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi was among those protesting loudly, describing the deal as an “insult to the Iraqi people.”
US forces likewise wanted to prevent these Daesh militants from reversing hard-won progress in Iraq and eastern Syria, but were constrained by the presence of women and children in the buses, who were acting as human shields. However, American airstrikes against a key bridge and vehicles associated with the convoy forced these Daesh fighters to seek refuge in regime-held territory, rendering their ultimate destination an open question.
This deal casts a spotlight upon interactions between Daesh and Iranian proxy forces, particularly Hezbollah which brokered this deal, with its leader Hassan Nasrallah having traveled to Damascus to win Bashar Assad’s support. As a US spokesman observed, “Their claim of fighting terrorism rings hollow when they allow known terrorists to transit territory under their control.”
Many Lebanese are furious that instead of being confronted and forced to face justice for murdering hundreds of citizens and at least nine soldiers among 30 kidnapped in 2014, Daesh terrorists are loaded onto tourist buses and transported to the location of their choice. Furthermore, Nasrallah’s deal-making occurred over the heads of the Lebanese army and state, epitomizing Hezbollah’s drift toward behaving as Lebanon’s de facto government with the final say over war and peace.
There is more than meets the eye to the Assad-Daesh relationship. After 2003, Syria’s regime funneled thousands of foreign jihadists into Iraq, with Syrian intelligence even facilitating attacks against Iraqi targets to inconvenience the Americans. When these jihadists mutated into Daesh, the regime stayed in touch. After protests erupted in Syria in 2011, the regime sought to discredit and divide the opposition by releasing hundreds of Syrian jihadists in a “general amnesty.” These elements constituted the core of Syrian jihadist groups, from the Al-Nusra Front, now known as Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, to Daesh.
When Daesh emerged in Syria in 2013, it was not through capturing regime-held territory, but by pushing out other rebel groups, doing the regime’s work for it. In this symbiotic relationship Assad gave Daesh hard currency in return for exports from oilfields under their control. When the overstretched regime no longer had the capacity to hold parts of central Syria, Daesh stepped into the vacuum — with Palmyra changing hands several times. Sky News published leaked documents proving this amicable transfer of territory between Daesh and the Syrian regime. Both sides also coordinated assaults against rebels.
Families of deceased Lebanese soldiers may gain comfort from burying their loved ones; but how many more people will lose their lives as hundreds of militants are transferred to a new battlefront?
Families of the deceased Lebanese soldiers may gain comfort from burying their loved ones; but how many more people will lose their lives as a result of hundreds of Daesh militants being transferred to a new battlefront?
The agreement comes in the context of systematic efforts to flush out Sunnis — fighters and civilians, moderates and extremists — from the Syria-Lebanon border region. Throughout 2016 and 2017 there have been numerous agreements to evacuate rebels from this zone. One such deal transferred around 20,000 Sunnis out of Homs. In another complex arrangement, Iraqi militias released a group of abducted Qatari royals in exchange for up to $1 billion from Doha, according to press reports. The same deal stipulated the removal of Sunnis from western Syrian villages, with Shiite occupants (including Iraqis and Afghans) ferried in, engineering a population loyal to Iran.
In Iraq, the pro-Iranian Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi militias have faced pressure to demobilize. Following the liberation of Mosul and Tal Afar from Daesh, Iraqis claim these paramilitaries are simply a menace. Al-Hashd leaders claim they must now fight in eastern Syria, ensuring the continuation of their salaries and weapons from the state. Precisely on cue, their allies inside Syria sent them new batches of Daesh fighters to justify their existence. Iraqis are furious that their security is jeopardized by this deal, which Al-Hashd leaders like Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis have vocally defended. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki condemned the criticism as a “systematic campaign against Hezbollah.”
For Iran and Assad this is all about who fills the post-Daesh vacuum, with Iran seeking to dominate a contiguous territory across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Population swaps, sectarian massacres, arming proxies and displacing civilians are different methods toward the same objective.
The media now talk about the prospects of a strategic victory for Assad. Yet this would be the hollowest of victories, having surrendered sovereignty over his shattered state to those who bankrolled and masterminded this war. The proliferation of Russian and Iranian military bases, missile sites and foreign militias demonstrate that Syria will remain a pawn for exacerbating regional instability, exporting terrorism and meddling in neighboring states.
Deals between Hezbollah, Daesh and others are being brokered under the noses of Western diplomats who have largely lost interest in Syria. In past peace negotiations, Iran was not permitted to participate. Now with the Astana rounds of talks driving the agenda, objectives are set by Iran and Russia before others even come to the table.
For all of US President Donald Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric, he is turning a blind eye to the emergence of a new pan-regional Persian empire. To those on the ground it is obvious what is happening: The Hezbollah-Daesh deal is simply another step toward major geopolitical transformations. If this sounds alarmist, it is because the consequences are almost too terrifying to contemplate.
The international community is discreetly disengaging from Syria at the very moment at which there must be maximum diplomatic input to shape the endgame both there and in Iraq — and prevent Iran benefitting from the logic of winner-takes-all.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.