Why Does Russia & Allies Prioritise Al-Qaeda Over ISIS?


Fort Russ – 9th January, 2016

by Elijah J. Magnier

Edited by Ollie Richardson

The question is often asked about the reasons why Russia, Syria, Iran and “Hezbollah” attack mainly but not exclusively al-Qaeda fi bilad al-Shan (Jabhat al-Nusra) and its allies among the Syrian opposition rather than attacking the so-called “Islamic State” group, also known as “ISIS”, “ISIL”, “IS” or “Daesh”. For years, many Middle Eastern analysts consciously believed that a sort of “alliance existed between Assad and ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”. This sort of ignorance in Middle Eastern dynamics emanates from a long lasting “conspiracy theory” that managed to affect prestigious media worldwide.

None the less, the Syrian Army command, and now its allies, have avoided clashing with ISIS in many occasions and on several fronts. In few words, ISIS is said to be “much easier and less urgent to defeat than al-Qaeda in Syria”. Also, as key players in the Middle East and the United States of America have benefitted from ISIS presence and expansion in Syria and Iraq for various reasons, so did Assad and his allies.

The answer to such a strategy comes from one of the highest decision makers of the joint operations room in Damascus that includes Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (3+1).

 “The reasons that push the Syrian regime and its allies not to concentrate all efforts against ISIS are multiple and most importantly:

  • ISIS is, in theory, the enemy of all countries and organizations. Most decision makers in the region and around the World considered ISIS as a virus that should be uprooted sooner rather than later. Many regional countries involved in the war in Syria prefer to keep a distance from it and avoid having their name involved with ISIS. Therefore, it is a problem for most.

  • ISIS has no regional or international political horizon. Therefore, the group is excluded from any potential settlement in Syria, Iraq or in any country it has a presence. Moreover, ISIS is working hard to attract as many enemies as possible, attacking every one and every organization that doesn’t accept its governance, even those who have the same identical ideology and creed, like al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.

  • It has no political cover up or umbrella for its existence or doing by any country and no one can support ISIS publicly or in secrecy.

  • ISIS is no longer directly financed by any country or oganisation. The group is self financed through the resources obtained from the sale of stolen oil and ancient archeology, the imposition of local taxes, looted banks, access to bank information and data on wealthy people living under its control, on what the group calls “spoils of war” and other income from Zakat (under different forms rather than currencies). Now that ISIS’ finance is under scrutiny, the greatest of its resources remains and spins within the orbit of its controlled areas.

  • ISIS is not getting any training for its fighters out of the region. The U.S, U.K and the Arab and bordering countries to Syria and Iraq do not offer ISIS any direct military assistance, neither are they providing the group with new lethal weapons. ISIS is suffering from a lack of military equipment and it is forced to buy, off the black market, weapons at a very high price.

  • ISIS is not benefitting from the services of different joint military operation rooms, providing intelligence information, planning attacks, guiding its forces on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy, assisting in the updating of a bank of objectives of enemy forces on the ground to counter attack, and overtly facilitating medical assistance, logistics and movement of the fighters through borders to direct attacks.

  • ISIS won’t be affected by any political gains or losses on future negotiating tables in Vienna or Geneva or New York.

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  • ISIS is much easier to defeat because it has no local support and has not managed to integrate itself among the population. ”

In light of the above, the commander added:

“Why would the Syrian army, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah  waste one single unnecessary bullet against ISIS unless it is strategically rewarding to attack its forces at the moment? If we see how the Kurdish forces are advancing on ISIS territory on the northern front, with the support of the U.S Air Force, we understand that the power of ISIS is more propagandist rather than effective when confronted with an ideological force, determined to fight and hold the ground. The Kurdish forces’ progress, occupying land and attacking ISIS in the North of Syria, is welcomed by Damascus and doesn’t provoke it. The Kurds are advancing in an Arab area and have much to gain by establishing a harmonious relationship with the local tribes who also are against ISIS.

It is engaging ISIS more and dispersing its military effort on several fronts. Moreover, ISIS does not exist in areas considered vital and rich like Idlib, Homs and the suburbs where the population is against the regime and supports the rebels. ISIS controls oil fields in the East and the North of Syria. These can be retaken. It is dominating a population in Raqqa and around it that suffers from its tyranny. The group is due to self disintegrate and can be defeated when other stronger enemies and serious threats are eliminated first. On top of these enemies is al-Qaeda fi Bilad-al-Sham, or Jabhat al-Nusra”.

“From our side, we want to establish a demarcation line with ISIS and will refrain from carrying out large military operations against the group to spare our forces (the military engagement) for other, more strategic, fronts. If we look at what happen in the offensive in reef Homs, like Mheen and Haw’wareen, we have retaken the two cities only because ISIS’ presence represents a possible threat to Homs. These were retaken and consolidated by “al-Redha” forces to create a defensive line that can be used in the future for when we decide to advance further in the area. In Kuweires also, we have enlarged the corridor to create a safe perimeter to the airport so it can be used in the future for further larger military operations. To conclude, everything that ISIS doesn’t benefit from, is, on the other hand, present among the rebels and al-Qaeda in Syria”, the source said.

On what happened in Mheen, where the Syrian Army pulled out after ISIS counter attacked, the source explained:

“When we see a concentration of forces coming together to attack a city or a village or a hill, in many cases it is better to avoid any infantry engagement, pull out forces and allow the air force to decimate or eliminate as many of the attacking groups as possible. We have adopted this plan in many locations and have managed, with little effort, to regain control of lost territories, inflicting a large number of killed among the assaulting forces. The presence of precise Russian Air Force bombing is creating a real difference. Therefore, we hold the ground when necessary and possible. We try to reduce the lost of infantry and avoid unnecessary confrontation when there is no need too. ISIS animosity against the Syrian rebels is highly beneficial to us and we take as much advantage as possible from it as long as no alliance or cessation of hostility is reached between Baghdadi and al-Qaeda”.

“On the other hand, Al-Qaeda in Syria (or the Levant, Al-Nusra Front), Ahrar al-Sham and all the Jihadi salafists who are happy to establish an Islamic Emirate like the “Army of Islam” and the “Army of conquest”, all these get physical, military and training support from abroad. Intelligence and signal information, logistical facilities and lethal new weapons are placed at their service. Not only the regional countries, but also the United States and allies use these forces, directly or indirectly, as a Trojan horse, to hit the Syrian regime. Any conquered land previously under their control is considered a gain at the political negotiating table”, said the commander.

When the Syrian regime objected to the American, French and British air strikes without coordination, Russia told President Bashar al-Assad:

”Let them continue depleting ISIS and you concentrate on fighting al-Qaeda and its allies. The time is not yet ripe for the objection of their doing”. So the military focus was more on the opposition hitting vital strategic areas that represents a real danger to the State of Syria like the access to the Mediterranean, and the reefs of Latakia, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and the borders with Turkey.

Officially, Russia has declared al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-sham and all the salafist jihadists as terrorists, rejecting any presence of these groups on the negotiating table. This is exactly what Mr. Assad declared throughout the years of war. Russia is asking the international community to define these groups considered non-terrorists. For these reasons, the war on al-Qaeda and its allies, wherever they are present on any fronts, and the gain or lost of territories controlled by these groups, represents an important factor for the Syrian regime and for the World on the political settlement discussed on the negotiation table. We shall continue making the necessary efforts to concentrate all military power against these and, simultaneously, keep an eye on ISIS, at the moment. The self declared “Islamic State” group is second on the scale of menace as it will not survive for very long. It is much easier to defeat and its danger is disproportionate”, he concluded.

Politically, ISIS’ “war on everybody” has been beneficial not only to Assad and his allies – even if the proportions and the comparison is not the issue here – but also to many players in the Middle East. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan have contributed, directly and indirectly, to the growth of ISIS to reduce the power of the “shia and alawite crescent” (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon), to remove Assad from power (cut the military supply line between Iran and Hezbollah and all facilities offered to Hezbollah in Syria, allow Qatar Gas to transit via Syria and Turkey to Europe, reduce the danger of the Syrian Army to Israel, impose a Turkish influence over Syria or even reshape the map of Syria) and to give the power to the Sunni majority in the Levant.

The United States have also profited from the growth of ISIS. It has allowed the U.S forces to return stronger than ever to Mesopotamia; benefitted from the sale of arms to Iraq; indirectly forced Iraqi key players to carried a peaceful coup d’état against Iran’ favorite candidate the ex-Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; welcomed a friendly new Prime Minister in baghdad, Haider al-Abadi, created a possibility to the Iraqi Kurds to call for independency from the central command in Baghdad, allowed Turkey to enter Iraq to participate to the liberation of Mosul and claim a share in the North of Iraq and increase its financial and military investment in Kurdistan. 

ISIS allowed the U.S to regain its military image – shaken in Afghanistan and after the Iraq war – in the Middle East by running a new kind of war with no human losses. Moreover, ISIS is exhausting Iran’s finance that is injected to support Syria with oil and cash to pay salaries and keep the various institutions standing and functioning. For the second time after the Iranian revolution, Iran is sending troops abroad to fight in thousands and not only a limited number of tens of advisors. Also, Hezbollah is fully engaged in Syria where thousands of men have been killed and injured. Iran is also financing all costs. And lastly, the United States hopes that Russia gets more engaged in Syria, “dirty” its hand in one way or another and ultimately fail in fully supporting Assad and its allies to defeat ISIS, al-Qaeda and allies. In all that, ISIS is a killing machine but also “a marionette”.

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