In the recent years there was many questions that was raised by many regarding the hidden cooperation between Assad regime and Islamic State, especially by the Syrian opposition. No one can deny that the Assad regime has avoided combating against ISIS for nearly two years, focusing their military efforts on the Syrian opposition forces only.
There was lots of incidents were the Syrian government forces carried out simultaneous attacks alongside the ISIS fighters against the Free Syrian Army positions and territories across Syria, mainly in Aleppo suburbs, Qalamoun, Damascus and Deir Zour. The Assad regime and Islamic State have their own reasons to consider the Free Syrian Army to be their main and mutual enemy. President Bashar Assad wants the International community to make a choice between supporting his brutal regime or the “jihadists” as he claims, while the Islamic State wants to win the support and sympathy of the Muslims worldwide and its promoting the Syrian regime’s atrocities as a method to promote their propaganda and recruitment.
Avoiding the Islamic State
There are many evidence that proves the presence of many former Iraqi Baathist military officers and Intelligence service members in the Islamic State’s leadership board, which has relations with the Syrian Intelligence services. This relation wasn’t established today but since the early days of the creation of this terrorist organization during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Those members are responsible for setting up military cooperation with the Assad regime, arranging trade deals (particularly oil), prisoners exchange and opening a safe passage for withdrawal, this has been done for both sides.
During the past 3 years, Assad ordered his military forces and allies to concrete their military campaigns in north-western part of Syria against FSA and Islamist militant groups located there. The north-western part or the “useful Syria” like President Assad described it, That territory is home to most of the Syrian population (before 2015 Jaysh al-Fatah campaign) and economic centers. The consolidation of Assad regime control there may be the harbinger of a future partitioned Syria, or it may create a base from which Syrian government forces and its allies can launch attacks on the rest of Syria. Many see this a justification from the Assad regime to ignore to fight against the Islamic State in the east of Syria.
Even when the Russians intervened in Syria last September 2015, they concentrated their military efforts mostly on territories that are controlled by the Free Syrian Army like Aleppo, Latakia, Homs, Idlib and Daraa. Russia hoped that their massive bombardment on FSA positions would allow the Syrian regime forces to capture most of their territories in Aleppo and north-western side of the country, but these hopes ended in a failure with little gains only for the Assad regime.
After 6 months of the Russian intervention, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that main part of his army in Syria will pull out. Russia was criticized by regional and superpowers for targeting mostly the “Moderate opposition” forces, and ignoring ISIS most of the times but didn’t they claim that one of their reasons for intervening in Syria was to increase support for the Syrian government forces and to fight against the Islamic State? It looks like Russia didn’t achieve what they came for, so now they are concentrating with United States on a peace process to end this conflict.
Can Assad regime defeat the Islamic State?
In reality, the Syrian regime can’t defeat ISIS [completely] militarily due to shortage of manpower and it can’t fight against different factions at the same time even with massive air support. ISIS emerged as one of the most powerful factions in this war, with controlling nearly half of Syria so it has become clear that ISIS can’t be defeated by only launching airstrikes or by supporting a bloodthirsty dictator or his sectarian allies, It must be done by the Syrian opposition militant groups backed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Battle of Palmyra is considered to be the first major victory that the Syrian regime achieved against Islamic State since the beginning of this war, but this battle was witnessed heavy presence of foreigners alongside the Syrian Arab Army, like Iranian IRGC, Hezbollah, Iranian backed Shiite militia and Russian special operation forces. Huge number of manpower [around 6,000 troops and militiamen] were deployed and 500 airstrikes was carried out by Russian Air Force against ISIS positions, Islamic state fighters who were in their hundreds trying to hold the town which they did hold it for two weeks and four days until the Assad regime announced that Palmyra is under government’s control.
Islamic State was unable to send reinforcements to Palmyra due to long distance, Deir Zour is approximately 225 km away from Palmyra, which is located in the middle of the desert and this makes them an easy target for the Russian air force which is dominating the Syrian airspace. However, the cost of this victory was not cheap since Syrian government forces lost hundreds of troops and were wounded also, hoping this victory could send a message to the international community that the Syrian government forces can be used as an effective force against terrorism.
Assad regime and Islamic state enjoy an unstable relationship based on interests despite these two factions clash with each other in different parts of the country, but both of them are practically working to keep the conflict going on as brutal and sectarian as possible. President Bashar Assad hopes to see ISIS continue to exist for many years, so he can use their existence to stay in power and try constantly to convince the International community that his “secular” regime can be part of the solution and effective member to participate in the global war on terror.