The deal that allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families to leave the Lebanese-Syrian border in air-conditioned buses towards IS-held areas near the Syrian-Iraqi border is suspicious in many ways. In equal measures, Iraqi reactions, wavering between sharp criticism of the deal by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi as an insult to the Iraqi people, and a warm welcoming of what happened by his pro-Iranian predecessor Nuri al-Maliki, who rejected the notion that the deal undermines Iraq’s national security, are confusing and confused. What is interesting here is the Russian near complete silence regarding the suspicious dealings of its allies in Syria, bearing in mind that the Kremlin is anathema to any negotiations with terrorists and any deal that would spare them from being crushed, a position similar to that of the White House. The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria intercepted the ISIS convoy, making it appear as though the roles had been coordinated in advance, while the messages Washington was sending to Beirut were full of contradictions. Indeed, some of these signals included expressions of regret over what Washington deemed to be the Lebanese state’s sanctioning of the deal between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime over the eviction of ISIS militants from Lebanese territory under their protection. Yet other American messages were congratulating the Lebanese army for pushing ISIS out of Lebanon. As usual, Lebanon’s political leaders spiraled down into endless differences bearing little relation to what happened during the battle to liberate the barrens in Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa border regions from terror groups, before Hezbollah’s deal with ISIS prevented the Lebanese army from taking credit for the liberation and regain its political prestige. Beyond the suspicious deal, what is even more intriguing is the role played by the major sponsors and the implications. This is not just about who is behind that terrible international cocktail of intelligence services behind the ‘joint stock company’ that created ISIS and their true motives, but also the nature of the objectives of those pushing for deals at the expense of accountability, and those pushing for crushing groups like ISIS at the expense of any political promises and pledges of accountability for those responsible for the massacring of Arab peoples and the destruction of their cities.
In Lebanon, any official who had previous knowledge that ISIS murdered the Lebanese soldiers kidnapped in 2015 and deliberately misled their families is a hypocrite who has committed a moral crime. Accommodating their feelings is one thing, and misleading them is another. Misleading people for political gain is a national insult. The death of soldiers in the line of duty is part and parcel of military life, meanwhile.
Blaming Hezbollah for striking a duplicitous deal with ISIS is on the mark, without argument. But claiming that Hezbollah and its ally the Syrian regime struck this unprecedented deal without the knowledge of the Lebanese government is an insult to our intelligence.
True, Hezbollah’s deal headed off the Lebanese army, which was ready to regain its sovereignty on the Lebanese-Syrian border if managed to complete the offensive against ISIS in the Lebanese borderlands. It is also true that Hezbollah deliberately prevented the army from scoring that achievement, because it wants the armed forces to appear weak and unable to impose its authority and finish the job. Hezbollah wants to have exclusive rights over ‘liberation’ and not have to share its investments and prestige with others.
However, none of this contradicts the fact that Hezbollah’s deal with ISIS has spared the Lebanese army from fighting a battle that may have caused a large number of casualties in its ranks. What happened in the end is not a disgrace for the Lebanese army. What happened was a deal between two militant groups that fought each other in Syria. The deal for ISIS’s surrender was conditioned upon providing safe passage for it out of Lebanese territory through Syrian territory to ISIS-held positions along the border with Iraq. It is a deal between two parties to the militia wars in Syria sponsored by the Syrian and Iranian governments, not the Lebanese government.
The Lebanese government has played the role of facilitator for a deal that drove the terrorists out of its territory. Some have criticized the settlement arguing that Lebanon should have sought to try the terrorists who abducted and executed Lebanese army soldiers instead of facilitating their escape. Others have supported the government’s actions, which ultimately led to liberating Lebanon from ISIS even if through negotiations and deals rather than military operations.
There is no need to outbid Hezbollah in the bazar of ‘victories’, and no need for knee-jerk criticisms of the settlement between Hezbollah and ISIS of which the Lebanese government was not a party. What Hezbollah did not achieve is drag the Lebanese government to directly and publicly coordinate with the Syrian government, the sponsor of the militia deal. What Hezbollah achieved, rather, is secure the exit of terrorists from Lebanese territory to Syrian territory in suspicious arrangements that is reminiscent of the accords between ISIS, the regime in Damascus, and the pro-Iranian government of Nouri al-Maliki under whose tenure ISIS emerged and almost overnight defeated the Iraqi army, seized its equipment, and looted the banks in Mosul.
Perhaps the use of ISIS to crush moderate Syrian rebels was always part of the tasks assigned to that suspicious organization. It is no secret that ISIS fighters had been released from Iraqi and Syrian prisons, to carry out the task of eliminating the rebels and turn the Syrian uprising into a war on terror.
But there is another striking dimension: The alternation between ISIS, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Popular Mobilization, and Lebanese Hezbollah in the same geography in Iraq and Syria. This geography is represented in the arc dubbed the Persian Crescent.
ISIS emerged with a view to thwart the Persian Crescent project in the geography linking Iraq and Syria, and Iran and Lebanon. The IRGC took it upon themselves to become the key partner of Washington and Moscow in eliminating ISIS, whose name and deeds have become synonymous with appalling terrorism. ISIS occupied the geography of that crescent for the past few years, but now, Iran and its proxies have all the military and political justifications they need to seize the geography seized from ISIS, without much objections. This is a terrifying proposal behind which stands a patient long-term strategy that characterizes the carpet weavers of Iran.
ISIS will slowly fade away, having now completed the task of destroying ancient Arab cities, moderate rebels, and stoking sectarian wars, not to mention looting wealth and using children as weapons in dirty wars following the devastating ideology of this sick group. But ISIS may be called upon to continue to operate in the Arab region, especially in the Gulf, which that ‘joint stock company’ wants to weaken and dismantle. Some may have the idea to use the remnants of the group in Europe, to spur a panicked isolationism similar to America’s current mood.
So far, the weakening of ISIS seems to directly benefit Iran and its proxies, just like the emergence of the group in Iraq and Syria had served the purpose of creating a special partnership between the IRGC, and Washington and Moscow under the title of combatting terror. By contrast, the Arab partnership in fostering then fighting ISIS has always been arbitrary, politically naïve, and strategically chaotic. Indeed, no one innocent from the manufacturing of ISIS and everyone is a partner in the ‘joint stock company’. Now, the Arab parties must undertake an honest and comprehensive post-mortem into the ISIS phenomenon and its Arab cost and implications. ISIS was brought to pose an existential threat to the Gulf countries as well as the Levant and North Africa. It may be fading, but it has not yet disappeared, and its threat remains existential.