The ISIS convoy that got away

An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)
An ISIS fighter on the bus to safety. (Photo: PRI)

 

So just how tangled is the tangled mess of the Syrian civil war?

The Wall Street Journal reported today on an incident that serves to illustrate the twisted web of typically contradictory but occasionally and uncomfortably overlapping interests on display amongst the myriad forces on the ground in Syria.

You need to read the article to get the full gist, but here’s a quick summary:

A convoy carrying hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families had been stranded for weeks in the Syrian desert, blocked by American airstrikes from reaching ISIS-controlled territory in the east of the country, near the Iraqi border. The convoy was pulling out from an area along the Lebanese border after an agreement was reached last month between ISIS, the Lebanese government, the Syrian government, and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran. At the request of Russia, the US halted its airstrikes, allowing the convoy to reach safe haven.

The whole thing had noted security analyst Max Boot scratching his head this morning.

For the record, I don’t think this incident reflects the sort of misplaced priorities that Boot implies. It does, however, reveal the simple truth that there is no obvious common objective that all the players on the Syrian stage are pursuing. I’ve noted before the sheer complexity of the constellation of groups fighting the war, and their mixed and conflicting motives and objectives.

Just for starters consider that Russia, the United States, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, and Iran are all theoretically on the same side in the fight against ISIS. Except that from the beginning of its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Russia has aimed way more of its firepower against rebel forces that aren’t called the Islamic State.

Because Russia’s primary interest isn’t fighting ISIS at all, it’s in keeping its Syrian client, Bashar Assad, in power. So far, the civil war is playing out just the way Russia wants. And so it was only natural that Russia would call off US warplanes from the skies around the ISIS convoy so that Syrian regime forces could move through the area, with Russian air cover.

The Assad regime’s game is also an obvious one: liquidate any rebel factions, and their civilian supporters if necessary, that could represent a plausible alternative to his government that would also be acceptable to the international community. If the only option to Assad is ISIS, then it’s a fair bet that the world will hold its nose and let the Assad regime stand, war crimes and grotesque atrocities notwithstanding. This is why Syrian regime forces rolled past that ISIS convoy without engaging it. They have other fish to fry.

Lebanon and Hezbollah have complimentary but not identical objectives in all this. Both want Islamic State fighters as far from Lebanese territory as humanly possible. That’s where it ends for Lebanon. But Hezbollah is also fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, and so their interests are largely aligned with those of the Syrian state, its Russian patron, and their own Iranian, which conveniently also wants to see Assad retain his grip on power.

That brings us to the United States and its decision to accede to the Russian request to pull its aircraft away from the ISIS convoy. It’s too easy, and frankly too politically convenient, to suggest that this is just more Trump cozying up to his pal Vladimir Putin. And it’s not even necessary given that Trump has already made decisions that more meaningfully align with both Putin and Assad’s interests.

There’s a simple explanation for this one. US warplanes were withdrawn as part of the “deconfliction” protocol with the Russian which was put in place to ensure that American and Russian military forces would not find themselves in a situation where they might bomb, shoot at, or shoot down each other. With the Syrian army moving under Russian air cover, US forces were called on to pull out, and in keeping with protocol, they did.

Pentagon officials weren’t happy about letting that convoy go, but when the request came in from the Russians, they followed the rules of the agreement and US forces stood down.

Nothing nefarious here, just one more reminder of the complex mess the United States has gotten itself into in Syria.