Why did Assad not attack the “Islamic State” before Palmyra?
“Al-Qaeda” in Syria fears the settlement and rejects the cease-fire.
Original article published here via @ALRAIMediagroup
Elijah J. Magnier: @EjmAlrai
The Syrian opposition and Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda in Syria, began to understand that the cease-fire is no longer in their best interest, especially since the Syrian army and its allies are turning all guns against the “Islamic State” group (ISIS). Al Qaeda in Syria believes that the cease-fire, a possible settlement, and democratic elections represent an existential threat to its existence. Its objective consists in establishing an Islamic State and certainly not a secular state. This is also the same approach of many within Ahrar al-Sham, the group that represents the largest number of militants in northern Syria. Other hardliner factions fighting under “Jaish al Fateh”, the Army of Conquest, also share the same ideology and objective with al-Qaeda.
Those groups believe that the Russian Air Force, the Syrian Army and its allies have won the battle of Palmyra only because of the cease-fire, that enable these to fully dedicate all forces against ISIS. Another battle has erupted, at the same intensity as the 18 days battle on Palmyra, on the Qaryateyn front, in Homs governorate, to defeat ISIS and expel it from the Syrian Eastern desert, opening the road to the strategic city of Deir-ezzour to break the siege and close the borders with Iraq. Russia appears to be imposing the rhythm of peace and war in Syria.
What Al-Qaeda and its allies in Syria believe is that the Syrian Army and the Russian are going to direct their guns toward it when ISIS will be encircled in Raqqa. This conviction is reinforced by the determination of the U.S. to support any Russian military action against any Syrian group, willing to seriously break the cease-fire and interrupt the peace negotiation. Al-Qaeda is not wrong. It would be naïve to think it is going to accept any resolution or agreement against its ideology, with at least 10.000 militants among its ranks, of which at least a third of strongly ideological foreign fighters.
But the question remains: Why Damascus forces did not attack ISIS before?
In the west, there are a few who call themselves “experts in Syrian affairs”, and who believe that an agreement was in force between ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This kind of agreement consisted in avoiding confrontation for years, especially between April 2013 and August 2014. This erroneous analysis is logical as it emanates from those who did not put a foot in Syria; they are far from the Syrian reality and dynamics. But let’s go over that mentioned period of war in Syria:
- – In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the “Islamic state in Iraq”, announced the merge of Jabhat al-Nusra (led by Abu Muhammad al-Joulani) with its Iraqi group, which became the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”. Al- Joulani rejected the merger and declared allegiance to al Qaeda Central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who welcomed the allegiance for convenience purposes. Al-Nusra became an Al-Qaeda franchise in the Levant.
It was clear to Damascus and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran that the battle in Iraq and Syria is one; that the next battle after Syria will be Lebanon; that the fate of Syria cannot be separated that of the Levant.
- – In April 2013, few days later, the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Secretary General of “Hezbollah” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus. Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies were in the heart of Damascus. It was agreed that the fate of Lebanon and Syria are interlinked and that Hezbollah be allowed to bring in all forces to start its first heavy involvement in Syria.
- – On May 19, 2013, the battle of Qusayr began. The military situation along the Syrian-Lebanese borders was critical and Damascus was in danger. The Presidential Palace was shelled. Al-Qaeda was close to al-Abbasy’yeen square in the heart of Damascus. But the borders allowed a continuous supply of men and weapons to rebels. Hezbollah promised to close the road and dedicate more effort to Damascus.
- – In June 2013 the Syrian army and Hezbollah launched the battle of Ghouta, Qaboun, Barzeh, Jobar, Adra, Al-Hajar al-Aswad and the area around the Damascus airport. Al-Nusra and rebels were everywhere around the capital. If Damascus falls, the entire regime would end and with it the Army and the government.
- – In August 2013, the Syrian army and its allies attacked Harasta , Zamalka and Ein Tarma. All around Damascus.
- – In September 2013 al-Qaida attacked the Christian Syrian town of Maaloula. In the months that followed, the nuns of Ma’loula were taken hostage.
- – In March 2014, the battle between Al-Nusra and ISIS began in Deir ez-Zor to control the city and the surrounding oil wells.
- – In the same month the Syrian army and Hezbollah attacked Nabek, Rima farms, Assal al Ward and Yabrud, enlarging the protection of the Lebanese-Syrian borders and preventing the flow of men to rebels and jihadists.
The attacks were carried following a specific agreed plan between Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah. This plan consisted of the following objectives:
1 – Protect the capital Damascus and interrupt the supply line to militants around the capital and along the borders with Lebanon.
2 – Rebuild the armed forces of the Syrian army after the defection of huge numbers who either joined the insurgency, or went back home, away from the fighting fronts.
3 – Form and train a parallel force to the army, the National Defence Force (NFD) so the population is involved in fighting for their lives against Jihadists of Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
4 – Protect Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Latakia. The Eastern Syria and the desert were left to the already established and existing isolated Syrian military bases. It was not possible to defend these, but it was necessary to hold on as long as possible, enough to keep the enemy engaged. ISIS understood this weakness and took advantage by attacking in July 2014 the Division 17 in the north of Raqqa, the Kuweires military airport in the west of Aleppo, and the airport of Tabaqa northeast of Aleppo. All officers and soldiers captured by ISIS were killed.
5 – All parties decided to protect what was defined as “useful Syria”: the capital Damascus and its airport, which represents the weight and centre of the system and the arrival of military supplies; Homs, being Syria’s largest province that its limits are very close to the borders of Lebanon and Iraq; adjacent to the protectors of Homs, and Aleppo, which is the economic capital of Syria; the maritime port of Latakia and its suburban and rural area.
6 – Idlib was considered the most sensitive and dangerous province that must be protected. Turkey found it mouth-watering and was waiting to devour it. Turkey had ambitions in Syria. Already Turkey asked from the Lebanese Prime Minister Najeeb Mikati to declare war on Assad. His request was officially denied.
At no time was ISIS considered a priority, due to its existence in an open space in the East of Syria, away from the regime’s centre of command and control. ISIS didn’t represent an existential threat to the regime, unlike Al-Qaeda and its allies that were, not only naively called for years as “moderate rebels” or “simple opposition”, but also supported by the West and the regional countries.
But the tide turned against the regime, again, reshuffling the plans up side down, when Turkey allowed for thousands of al-Qaeda fighters and its allies to travel across its country and take the Idlib province, Jisr al-Shoughour and attack north and east of Lattakia. Kesab was in the hands of Jihadists who finally had an access to the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian Army was morally incapable of fighting. Officers found it easier to run away and leave posts when in danger in many- but not all – battles. Damascus had a soft policy toward these to prevent officers and soldiers from further deserting. The Turkish move was considered a game-changer and broke all red lines. The partition of Syria was at this moment possible. Latakia was surrounded by land on its eastern and northern front. The long safe city of Latakia was bombed. The U.S. and Europe were happy to provide all rebels, including Jihadists, with weapons. The lesson of Afghanistan was forgotten. The stinger of the twentieth was replace with the TOW of the twenty first century.
This is when Damascus and Tehran asked Russia to intervene. The argument was that no one could guarantee what the next ruler of Syria was going to do with its allies. The Jihadists were overwhelming the rebels with high motivation, driven by their solid ideology. The Syrian Army and its allies were incapable of fighting on many fronts.
Russia agreed to intervene as long as Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah provided the ground forces. In the first months, many western observers mocked the “lack of results”, expressing their wishful thinking. The balance was established. None the less, another game-changer occurred: Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 in November 2015.
Russia’s prime concern shifted to defeat all Turkish allies and dismantle Turkey’s plans in Syria. The Russian Air Force managed, with its allies on the ground, to regain control of the most difficult front, the province of Latakia and its rural area; it provided a recovery for Daraa in the south; restored the control of Homs rural area in Mheen; created a wider security parameter around Damascus; recovered the south of Aleppo; took most of the north of Aleppo, thus opening the road to the long besieged cities of Nubbl and Zahraa; and finally took back Palmyra after advancing toward Tabqa.
Only an amateur with limited knowledge of the war in Syria would consider Palmyra to be the “first victory of the regime” and its allies. All the above are “First Victories”.
It is certain that Russia and the United States have managed together to impose the cease-fire, transforming it into an international victory. It is clear that the cease-fire is serving the purpose of fighting ISIS now that all other fronts are relatively calm. All other parties involved in the war in Syria are negotiating with the excepting of Al-Qaeda, unless its leader accepts to engage in the road map and a democratic secular Syria: this is highly unlikely.
It is most likely we shall see some setbacks to Syria’s cease-fire. However, both the U.S. and Russia are determined in moving forward in the peace talks, with parliamentary elections, a new constitution and a new government in Syria with wider participation. Simultaneously, the war will continue against ISIS, and later Al-Qaeda… the second biggest loser in this cease-fire.
Read also related article:
- For Assad defeating al-Qaeda and its allies, rather than ISIS, is a top priority: ISIS is a “marionet… https://ejmagnier.com/2016/01/09/why-defeating-al-qaeda-and-its-allies-is-a-top-priority-for-assad-rather-than-isis-isis-is-a-marionette/ via @EjmAlrai
2. How you become a famous “Terrorist Expert” on social media. https://ejmagnier.com/2016/03/23/how-you-become-a-famous-terrorist-expert-on-social-media/ via @EjmAlrai