While Hizbollah celebrates its victory against ISIL in Lebanon, Syrians and Iraqis must prepare for the next showdown
The transfer of ISIL fighters from the Syrian-Lebanese border means little to them, even if it was their last leg to stand on. The deserts will be their new hideouts
On Tuesday, a cartoon published by an Iraqi artist captured a controversy that spanned three Arab countries this week. In the cartoon, Ahmed Falah depicted the controversial announcement by Hizbollah to transfer by bus more than 300 ISIL fighters from the Lebanese borders into a Syrian town near Iraq.
Mr Falah captured the episode by the drawing of two buses. One bus, carrying an ISIL sign, appears wrapped as a gift; another bus is wrapped by an Iraqi flag – signifying the sacrifices of Iraqi soldiers killed in the fight against ISIL. The cartoon is titled “Eidiyah", the tradition of gifting during the Eid.
News emerged over the weekend that Hizbollah reached a deal with ISIL that involved the transfer of 308 ISIL fighters, along with their families, from the Syrian-Lebanese borders to the eastern Syrian city of Albu Kamal. The relocation by buses moving through regime-held areas from one side of the country to another took place in coordination with the Syrian government.
The cartoon’s theme echoes outrage and surprise at the move by Hizbollah, which it celebrated as part of what it dubbed Lebanon's "second liberation" – after the year 2000 expulsion of Israeli troops from the country. In the words of Hassan Nasrallah, the party’s leader, the victory signalled the end of jihadi presence in all of Lebanon.
Symbolically, the public acknowledgement of the transfer is unprecedented for all the parties involved. For ISIL, the fighters’ surrender and relocation were uncharacteristic of a group that has long sought to set itself apart from rebel forces as one that fights till the last man and withdraws only on its terms. The scene of fighters riding a bus was reminiscent of defeated Syrian rebels transferred from southern to northern Syria as part of a surrender deal.
More important, the transfer of a sizeable fighting force along with their families to a border province where the Syrian regime anticipates a deadly fight against ISIL raises questions about the implication of sending such a force to the Syrian-Iraqi borders.
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The broad criticism from Iraqis led Haider Al Abadi, the prime minister, to publicly denounce the deal in a press conference on Tuesday as “unacceptable”, “concerning” and “insulting to the Iraqi people”. Although an Iraqi source said the government in Baghdad had known of the deal before it was announced, the prime minister urged Damascus to investigate the matter.
When the Mosul battle began in October last year, the Syrian regime expressed outrage about leaving the western axis of Mosul open for ISIL fighters to flee into Syria. Two weeks into the battle of Mosul, Iranian-backed groups began an offensive west of Mosul to block the route, in defiance of initial plans set by the United States-led international coalition to keep it open. Russia made a similar complaint after the battle for Raqqa began, alleging that the US-backed forces left an open corridor for ISIL to flee into regime areas east of Palmyra.
Given the recurrent Syrian concern about the influx of ISIL fighters into its areas, it is inexplicable that the regime accepted the relocation of such a force of ISIL fighters into a province it is racing to take before the US coalition does so. Worse, even though Iraqi forces blocked Mosul's western axis in order to stop ISIL fighters moving into Syria, the Syrian regime allowed the sending of ISIL fighters near the Iraqi borders. The latter was particularly unjustifiable for Iraqi constituencies, whether civilians or fighters who battled ISIL.
Hizbollah could have chosen other areas for the relocation of ISIL fighters without having to face them itself any time soon. Such areas could include the Yarmouk Basin, in south-west Syria, where a relatively small ISIL faction operates in a strategically and symbolically significant area for ISIL but without presenting a direct threat to the regime or Hizbollah in the foreseeable future. In fact, Hizbollah could benefit from the increased strength of ISIL in that region since ISIL would threaten the Syrian rebels near Israel and Jordan.
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Hizbollah may have had no choice, and ISIL chose the eastern border areas for its special significance. Noticeably, the ISIL forces controlling the region straddling the Syrian-Iraqi borders seem to be increasingly reenergised by the increased activities in the desert areas extending from Palmyra to Anbar. It is here where Iranian-backed forces are amassing in preparation for the final showdown in what remains of ISIL areas. This places the border region as a perfect arena for both ISIL and Iran to showcase their projects in the region as each other’s worst enemies.
If ISIL has preserved its most valuable leaders and fighters in previous battles, the border region is these seasoned members' last stand. They have nowhere else to go. Sources indicate that ISIL has been building or training new elite forces to defend this particular region and to prepare for the next stage if it loses it. In Syria, neither the regime nor the US-led coalition has sufficiently prepared for the coming big fight in Deir Ezzor.
From ISIL’s standpoint, even if it is eventually driven out of the populated areas in this region, the deserts surrounding it will be their hideouts for its conceived war of attrition.
Hizbollah sent the 308 fighters to ground zero of the fight against ISIL. The move will greatly increase its pressure on both its Syrian and Iraqi allies as they prepare for the next showdown against ISIL, while Hizbollah celebrates its victory against ISIL in Lebanon.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy
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Updated: August 30, 2017 04:00 PM