The United Nations recently brokered a deal between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and armed groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization. It concerns the latter’s presence in the Palestinian district of Yarmouk in Damascus.
As part of the deal ISIS will be given safe passage, if it agrees to halt the siege and withdraw and relocate to its Raqqa stronghold, in Syria’s northeast.
Whether or not this fragile agreement will work has to be seen in the coming days (as of writing it is ‘on hold,’ reportedly because of the air strike that killed the leader of the Jaish al-Islam group, Zahran Alloush, on Friday).
However, it is telling that ISIS is part of a UN-brokered agreement. Could this set a precedent for further negotiations between Assad and ISIS in certain flash-points in Syria? The two sides in this war seemed to have come to some understandings in the past.
After ISIS consolidated its complete control over the Syrian Raqqa Province in August 2014, it and Syrian military forces under Assad’s command avoided clashing elsewhere on the battlefield for months at a time. They seemingly recognized the benefits of liquidating other groups they both despised, instead of clashing head-on.
We have seen other deals like this one in Yarmouk. The most significant case was probably the deal which formally ended the three-year Syrian military siege of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in the city of Homs.
Reached in May 2014, the regime gave FSA rebels safe passage from that city in return for them reaching out to their comrades in Aleppo, who had been besieging two isolated Shiite-majority towns (Nubul and Zahra). It was mutually beneficial.
More recently, a similar trade-off was negotiated in Syria: after an Islamist coalition group called Jaish al-Fatah managed to overrun most of Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province, it cut-off two Shiite-majority towns (Fuaa and Kafraya), which were bastions of regime supporters, and lay siege to them.
Jaish includes the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, whose comrades further south were similarly cut-off and trapped at the hands of Syrian military forces and the Hezbollah militia in the Syrian resort town of Zabadani.
Iran, which supports Assad, and Turkey, which gave support to Jaish al-Fatah, sought to broker a deal. Nusra would be given safe-passage from Zabadani and be allowed to go north to Idlib in return for the Shiite villagers being given safe passage to Turkey, where they would then be flown to Beirut.
This fragile agreement is set to see the first 130 Nusra members head for Idilb from Zabadani, while 400 civilians from those aforementioned Shiite towns will be relocated as part of this ongoing process.
The Yarmouk agreement is much less complicated, since it deals with just the one force withdrawing. What’s notable about it is that it involves ISIS, and could set a precedent for the regime simply negotiating compromises with ISIS in areas of mutual interest or contention, while focusing on eliminating other groups deemed more immediately dangerous to its continued rule.