A Syrian Democratic Fighter walks near the Euphrates river near Tabqa, Syria, in April 2017. Photo: AFP
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) vehemently denied on Thursday a report from the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights conflict monitor which claimed they permitted the Islamic State (ISIS) to withdraw from Tabqa as part of a deal. However, previously negotiated tactical withdrawals between ISIS and its adversaries suggest that such a deal would not be wholly unprecedented.
“I take the SDF at their word when they say they haven't negotiated a deal with ISIS in Tabqa,” said Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst and Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society think tank in the UK.
Last August, when the SDF had ISIS surrounded in Manbij, they offered to facilitate an ISIS withdrawal in a 48 hour timeframe with their “individual weapons.”
ISIS ignored that offer.
“In Manbij the coalition and the SDF did allow ISIS to pull out eventually,” Orton said. “But that was a hellacious fight in Manbij and even cost the SDF a lot of foreign fighters, who tend to be well-protected.”
Russia and the Syrian regime suggested last year that the US-backed Iraqi offensive on Mosul intentionally left the city's west side open so ISIS could withdraw its forces en masse across the border into Syria and swamp regime forces there – particularly in Deir Ezzor, where an isolated garrison of Syrian soldiers could have been overrun. Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi units were subsequently deployed there to hinder any attempted ISIS withdrawal.
Orton sees “no evidence” that Turkey negotiated an ISIS withdrawal from Jarablus during the opening phase of its — now concluded — Euphrates Shield Operation last August.
“Jarablus was a tactical withdrawal,” he said, “It's standard ISIS practice to withdraw from urban zones when faced with overwhelming firepower.
“Other times they stay and fight on because they need a political victory within a military defeat,” he elaborated. “In Fallujah that meant dragging it out long enough for Iran's proxy militias to commit sectarian atrocities. In Jarabulus it meant pulling out so Turkey could have a frontline with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] — which inevitably led to clashes.”
In al-Bab earlier this year, ISIS were unlikely to have accepted any Turkish offer to relocate their forces from that city unmolested rather than fight. Ankara would no doubt have preferred an option wherein ISIS instead fought the SDF/YPG in nearby Manbij over putting their own soldiers and Syrian proxy fighters on the line digging the militants out.
Instead the Turks likely concluded, correctly and logically, that ISIS were determined to slug it out on the defensive against them in their entrenched positions in al-Bab rather than risk becoming much more exposed and vulnerable by venturing out into the open, to assault the SDF in Manbij, and risk quickly losing a lot of fighters and weapons to coalition airstrikes – as they did in their costly siege on Kobani.
One battle Orton cites, wherein ISIS did agree to a negotiated withdrawal, was the first battle of Palmyra back in March 2016 against a Russian-backed Syrian regime ground offensive.
“ISIS’s retreat from Palmyra in March 2016 is a classic case of Assad and those who support him using ISIS for their own ends, particularly to defeat the more general Syrian rebellion,” Orton reasoned. “The withdrawal of ISIS was coordinated with Assad to allow the Russians to have a victory at that time as a capstone to their intervention, which had overwhelmingly focused on the mainstream rebels as part of an attempt to force a binary choice, either the dictatorship in Damascus or a terrorist takeover of Syria.
“This binary choice, Assad calculated, would make it more likely that the international community would acquiesce to his continued rule, and maybe even assist it.
“The Palmyra operation was a political move, not a military one, designed to switch the narrative to one where the pro-Assad coalition was a partner against terrorism, rather than terrorism’s enabler.”
Orton says that particular deal “was between an ISIS official and someone from the regime's Mukhabarat [intelliegence]. It was written up in an internal ISIS document.”
It was also, he added, simply another example of collusion between Assad and ISIS, in its current and previous forms.
“The Assad regime has a relationship with the Islamic State movement going back to at least 2002 when the regime helped ISIS assassinate an American diplomat in Jordan and set up the “ratlines” that brought the foreign fighters into Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003,” Orton recounted.
“Without Assad’s military-intelligence service facilitating ISIS's recruitment of foreign fighters, who were disproportionately suicide bombers, and providing other kinds of support, including a hinterland, hundreds of Western soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians would be alive today, and ISIS would be far weaker,” he said.
Orton added that Assad “left ISIS alone” as ISIS was “publicly building up its caliphate.”
In the meantime the Syrian dictator was “blitzing other insurgent groups. In some areas, Aleppo City and Marea are well-known cases, ISIS and Assad worked in tandem to attack the rebels. Their strategic goal being the same, namely the elimination of the ‘grey-zone’ between the regime and the jihadists.”
Unlike the regime, the SDF/YPG do not have any history of such collusion with the militants. It would not be unprecedented, however, for them to offer ISIS negotiated tactical withdrawals in certain areas — secure in the knowledge that they will confront those militants elsewhere in their rapidly shrinking caliphate at a later date.