By Seth J. Frantzman
The Syrian government’s involvement in the convoy situation brings to light some of the conflict’s complexities.
It is like a scene out of a bad movie, a vacation gone wrong in the Syrian desert.
Islamic State fighters who were evacuated from the Lebanese border, smiling and laughing in the photos of them on August 27, are now stuck in eastern Syria. US-led coalition air strikes have churned up a road, preventing further progress toward the Iraqi border, and bombed vehicles sent to aid the convoy. The story is a microcosm of the bizarre aspects of modern war in the Middle East, where conflict often doesn’t look like conventional warfare.
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The convoy started its journey in the Qalamoun mountains of the Lebanon-Syria border.
During the several years that ISIS controlled the area, it was supposedly at war with the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and the Lebanese army. Much of that “war” was relatively peaceful, with several hundred ISIS fighters allowed to hold the area as long as they didn’t try to expand. When they did agree to leave, it was through a deal.
But who signed the deal? The US-led coalition initially described the deal as an agreement “between Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS.” The New York Times claimed it was between “Islamic State, Lebanon and the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.” Yet the deal involved 17 buses and 11 ambulances, with 308 fighters and 330 family members traversing 350 km. of Syrian regime territory to get to ISIS-held areas along the Euphrates valley.
So why isn’t the Syrian government listed as a party to the agreement? Because the Syrian government has been selling itself as “fighting ISIS and al-Qaida” to western media, pretending it is on the same side against terrorism. If Syrian President Bashar Assad was seen to be allowing ISIS members to transit his territory to go fight in Iraq against the US or against Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, the regime’s narrative would be challenged.
However, the reality is that 17 buses did drive through dozens of Syrian regime checkpoints, escorted by Hezbollah. Hezbollah in this story plays the “bad cop,” escorting ISIS, while the Lebanese government and Syrian regime are the “good cop,” turning a blind eye.
In remarks reported by the NYT, Lt.-Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, US coalition commander, said the coalition had “struck every ISIS fighter and/ or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy and will continue to do that.” The coalition wrote in a statement on Sunday that 85 ISIS fighters and 40 vehicles had been struck by September 3.
According to reports, during the time the convoy has been stranded, the 11 ambulances left and drove to Deir al-Zor, where the wounded disembarked.
There doesn’t seem to be any way of knowing who was in those ambulances, but the supposition is that they were legitimately ferrying the wounded.
The latest statement from the coalition is that it “has communicated to the Russians to deliver a message to the Syrian regime that the coalition will not condone ISIS fighters moving further east to the Iraqi border.”
Millions of people have been driven from their homes, and whole cities laid waste in Syria, yet when there are agreements between groups, suddenly humane transfers take place.
The model for this existed as far back as May 2014 when 1,900 Syrian rebels were evacuated from the Old City of Homs. They were allowed to keep their weapons.
The same is true with the economy. A March 2016 paper at Chatham House by David Butter titled “Salvaging Syria’s Economy” details how Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics was still compiling a consumer price index for Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, Idlib, Hasaka and other provinces under the control of ISIS, rebels and Kurdish forces.
Around 2.8 million tons of wheat were harvested in 2015, more than a million less than before the war. However, the wheat still crossed areas held by rebel groups and ISIS, as evidenced by reports of price competition between the government and opposition.
According to the report, the cost of a ton of Hasaka wheat in Damascus was more expensive than that imported from countries on the Black Sea partly because “a 25 percent tax by armed groups.”
According to the report, the Aleppo power station was supplied by natural gas from the Twinan treatment plant even after it fell under control of ISIS. “The plant was operated by staff of the government’s Syrian Gas Company under ISIS supervision.” ISIS also controls “the Conoco associated gas plan in Deir al-Zor governorate and the Jbeissa plant in Hasaka,” both of which supply gas to regime-operated power stations.
Energy deals “mainly take the form of service exchanges rather than involving cash payments.” This is because large amounts of cash can be difficult to deal with in non-regime areas where banks rarely function.
Considering the realities of ISIS rule – mass beheadings, genocide and ethnic-cleansing of minorities, enslavement, mass rape and the selling of Yazidi women – it seems bizarre that the Syrian regime would so easily exchange goods and services with the group. It seems extraordinary that throughout the war, trucks full of wheat were traversing areas ostensibly at war with one another.
This, then, is the background of the stranded convoy and why the US-led coalition committed to destroying ISIS completely does not see eye to eye with the Syrian regime. For the regime, transporting ISIS fighters is a practical solution, like continuing to pay state employees in ISIS areas who work at ISIS-run energy sources.
Israel knows these dilemmas as well, as it is a conduit for goods and services entering the Gaza Strip while ostensibly being in conflict with Hamas.
However, when it comes to transparency and discussions of the Syrian war, there is a lack of detail about the extent of peace on the frontlines that allows for people and goods to transit.