It is in retreat, defeated in its attempt to build a state. But the survival of the Islamic State group (IS) is assured. It’s assured because IS has effectively changed its strategy to one of insurgency, because it remains at home in the ungoverned spaces opened up by Syria’s civil war and present in Iraq’s less-populated provinces.
But IS is not surviving entirely on its own. In fact, it is receiving what might seem like a remarkable amount of outside help. Factions across the region, though they deny it, have been cutting deals with the Islamic State group. And they look unlikely to stop any time soon.
First, the details of one of these deals. For cash, IS can induce rebel and Kurdish groups to smuggle its fighters across Syria.
A report in The National, published this month, documented the ways in which IS militants were being smuggled across the country in exchange for cash.
They are being assisted by a loose network of individuals who benefit financially from such deals. But these are not just rogue individuals with no significant ties. The smugglers are reportedly members of Syrian rebel groups and men affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the latter of which serves as the primary American and Global Coalition proxy in Syria.
IS fighters making use of this system begin in the east of the country. They travel across Syria with the help of their smugglers, sometimes just arriving at another IS pocket, but other times making it to Turkey, passing through Manbij – seized from IS by the SDF, with the support of the US, in the summer of 2016.
Bribes are paid at every stage – to rebels staffing checkpoints, and officials in towns through which the fighters pass.
These deals apparently include facilitating the transportation of high-ranking IS members.
Syrian and Iraqi IS fighters are reportedly charged one rate for movement; foreign fighters another, slightly higher, tariff. The Turkistan Islamic Party’s Syrian branch stands accused of assisting the movement of an IS emir; a man involved in organising the terror group’s logistics.
These transactions are partially the result of the exigencies and corruption inherent in war. Fighters need or would like extra cash. The possibility of being paid thousands of dollars simply to look the other way, or to arrange the transport of a suspect individual, must seem attractive.
These temptations are rife in states of civil conflict. But this is concerning, because any aid to IS fighters assists a murderous terror group whose aims are contrary to any desire to free, or even to stabilise Syria.
There is also the charge of hypocrisy. Members of factions allied with the coalition ranged against the Islamic State group are unofficially co-operating with IS fighters. These deals are, in effect, aiding the enemy; it is making the escape of IS fighters easier and the terror group’s future insurgency less difficult to mount, one deal at a time.
This is wartime, and some hypocrisy is inevitable. When condemning this unofficial smuggling, it should be noted that a perversely similar event occurred on a greater scale in the ruins of Raqqa, where it was revealed last year that the SDF struck a bargain to allow IS to evacuate its fighters from the city en masse.
This spared IS’ adherents and, possibly, their families from total destruction, and saved the attacking forces from a bloody denouement involving extensive casualties. From an SDF perspective, this can be justified. Who wants to fight 600 IS members to the death, when the battle is already won?
But that is not the only consideration. It is deals like this which allow the Islamic State group to retain its strength for another day.
These deals, in combination with other failures of the anti-IS campaign, mean the terror organisation can conserve its fighter-power and move its operatives across Syria to more strategically advantageous places.
This relatively unobstructed travel allows IS to gather its fighters where they will be useful and safe. Deals like this contribute to a state of affairs in which IS will continue to be a threat for many years to come.
Because the SDF remains the primary proxy not only of the United States, but also the global coalition, the picture is rendered yet more complicated and morally suspect. For members of the SDF to do things which the US condemns, and indeed punishes in others, is worse than hypocritical and short-sighted: it’s self-defeating, seriously discrediting, and morally contemptible.
Syrian rebel commanders, as well as leaders in the YPG and SDF, must investigate these deals and act to punish the perpetrators. They risk aiding their enemies, both practically and in propaganda terms, if they do not.
The Assad regime often tactically refrains from fighting IS, and uses terror groups to its advantage. When it attempted to bus IS fighters cross country as part of a ceasefire deal last year, US aircraft cratered the road ahead and remonstrated forcefully.
This month, the regime has allowed IS forces to move through its territory into a new pocket in Idlib. And in accordance with previous reaction to similar regime tactics, this ought to be forcibly and reasonably criticised. Not to extend the same criticism to elements within allied forces who do similar things seems partial, and makes any attack on the former appear entirely empty.
Dealing with IS may make sense amid the chaos and degeneration of armed conflict. But it is no solution at all.
Allowing IS fighters to regroup and move to more favourable areas, or even aiding their travel in the hope of making some dishonest money, is morally evil and practically dangerous.
It is the product of a complex war in which moral and military certainties seem, for a time, no longer to hold.
If the Islamic State group is to be defeated at all, its enemies cannot allow rogue elements within their ranks to place expediency and greed above the campaign to rid Syria of the terror group. To deal with IS finally and definitively, there can be no more deals with them.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.