Assad is trying to turn his problems into opportunities by helping ISIS (Daesh; ISIL) choose what’s in his own best interests and allowing ISIS easier access to some areas than to others.
“Reports indicate that the regime is making air-strikes in support of #ISIL's advance on #Aleppo, aiding extremists against Syrian population,” the US Embassy in Syria tweeted on 1 June. Similar reports were published by other regional and international media outlets when ISIS made an unexpected and successful move against rebel groups north of Aleppo, disrupting their recent momentum.
To many of those who have been closely following what’s happening in Syria, this might not come as a surprise. Assad has avoided confronting ISIS, as they both benefit from one another. ISIS degrades and eliminates rebel groups that would otherwise be fighting Assad, and Assad’s regime presents itself to the West as the only local partner that can fight the terrorist group. This—at least publicly—unspoken agreement was broken in June last year after ISIS announced its caliphate. It seems, however, that the same arrangement is back on the table with some amendments due to recent developments.
Game changer Palmyra
Seizing Palmyra gave ISIS the advantage of many new strategic options, which will most likely change the dynamics of the armed conflict in Syria. The strategic location of Palmyra has allowed ISIS to cut the regime’s supply line to Deir Ezzor, and it opens the possibility of capturing other strategic locations, such as the Shaer gas and oil field. The broad desert has given them many alternative roads to various areas of Syria to expand and enforce their presence there; eastern Ghouta and eastern Qalamoun, rural Hama, rural Homs and rural Sweida. Capturing Palmyra was a game changer not only for ISIS but for the regime as well. Just consider the big number, and high symbolic value, of Assad regime losses on various fronts; the fear of the next rebels attack; the continued draining of resources (locally and regionally); the withdrawal of Iraqi militias who have returned home to fight; and the division in strategies between Assad and Iran—the former still trying to control all provincial centers, the latter restricting itself to areas considered useful within Iranian strategy.
These developments have pushed Assad and his allies to find ways to cut down their losses and to conserve resources. It seems that Assad has found a way to turn his problems into opportunities by giving ISIS access to areas controlled by the rebels in order to drain their resources as they fight away from the regime, and he does so even if this costs him more territory. In Aleppo, for example, ISIS could advance through regime-controlled areas, including As-Safirah or Kweires Air Base, given the importance of these locations and due to pressure on the regime by other rebels groups in Idleb, combined with rumors that an Aleppo battle will be launched, which has made the regime even weaker. Even though capturing air bases might be considered its most important strategic goal, ISIS instead decided to intensify its attacks on areas controlled by rebels along the Suran-Mare axis in rural Aleppo. The regime also intensified its attacks on areas that have helped ISIS advance and control new villages. These developments forced many rebel groups, including members of the Army of Conquest coalition, to mobilize their forces and move them to prioritize fighting ISIS over the regime—at least in Aleppo.
The regime might also help ISIS to enforce its presence in eastern Ghouta, which will help the regime completely besiege Ghouta and engage rebels in another fight. Some recent reports mentioned that the regime has been busy transporting equipment from Al-Seine Airbase to Ad-Dumayr Airbase, which Assad’s opponents interpret as an evacuation plan. If this is the case, it could mean that the regime is either trying to conserve resources, or is scared that it might lose the air base, or both, which in any case will give ISIS access to eastern Ghouta. The same thing could also apply in eastern Qalamoun, Ar-Ruhaybah and Jayrud, to enforce their presence there and to keep the opposition busy in the fight against it.
While the air force of the American-led coalition played a large role in defeating ISIS in Kobani, it didn’t react to ISIS’s latest attack on rebel-held areas, which gave ISIS the opportunity to move its forces freely. Many rebel leaders complained publically about the lack of US interest in helping them defeat ISIS in Syria, though it’s now apparent the US administration knows of the cooperation between Assad and ISIS. Sarcastically, activists started wondering if the US Air Force didn’t strike ISIS because Assad had crowded up the sky striking rebel groups. Maybe sarcasm is the only way that many Syrians, and to some extent non-Syrians, are able to understand US policy towards fighting ISIS.