“We had no choice,” says a man serving with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been fighting ISIS for years.
“I didn’t come here to kill women and children,” he recalled when describing how Islamic State members were able to flee Raqqa using human shields last month. On Monday, November 13 the BBC published claims of a “secret deal that let hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families escape Raqqa under the gaze of US and British-led-coalition and Kurdish- led forces.” However an anti-ISIS fighter who spoke to The Jerusalem Post says ISIS used human shields to escape.
Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State in Syria, was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on October 17 after four months of heavy fighting. The last days of the battle witnessed what the US-led coalition described as a “civilian evacuation.”
A statement released on October 14, 2017, by the Combined Joint Task Force’s Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), revealed that “a convoy of vehicles
is staged to depart Raqqa October 14 under an arrangement brokered by the Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal leaders on October 12.”
The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati discovered that local drivers spent three days “carrying a deadly human cargo – hundreds of ISIS fighters, their families and tons of weapons and ammunition.”
The BBC wonders whether the pact “unleashed a threat to the outside world, one that has enabled militants to spread far and wide across Syria and beyond?” According to the report “a Western officer was present for the negotiations.”
They also assert that 250 ISIS fighters and 3,500 family members were bused out. A driver told the BBC that numerous foreign fighters were in the convoy.
The coalition also “monitored the convoy from the air.” Thirteen buses, 100 vehicles and 50 trucks took part, including “ten trucks [that] were loaded with weapons and ammunition.”
OIR spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon tweeted on November 13 that the convoy was “never a ‘secret’” and its existence was known. The coalition’s October 14 statement notes that the local agreement was “designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign Daesh [ISIS] terrorists.”
The coalition also claimed that ISIS fighters would be subject to “search and screening” by the SDF and that the coalition was “not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement.”
Furthermore the coalition “does not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqa.”
The SDF fighters on the ground say they saw something different. “The deal was for the surrender of 300 ISIS fighters, 100 of them to surrender to us that day [October 12] but the 200 changed the deal the next day,” says a man who witnessed the events in Raqqa; for security reasons, he asked that his name not be used for publication. A local tribe helped facilitate the convoy because ISIS was holding some of the tribe’s members captive.
Initially ISIS members wanted to be transported toward the Turkish border but they were told they could either go towards Deir Ez-Zor or other areas ISIS held near the Iraqi border.” Deir Ez-Zor is the largest city in eastern Syria.
According to the local fighter the SDF and the coalition were “pissed off, but what can we do?” He says the ISIS members mixed with civilians so that they would not be hit by air strikes once the convoy got moving. “I was there and saw it with my own eyes.”
The fighter is angry with the media’s portrayal of events. He also says that among the “families” that ISIS took with them were human shields, including Yazidi women
enslaved by them in 2014. “Nobody checked them, they all were wearing explosive belts,” he says. Asked about the presence of foreign fighters, he responded: “Of course there were foreigners in the middle [of the group].”
After four months of brutal fighting for Raqqa, the anti-ISIS fighters say they had no choice and that it’s not fair to cast blame. “They [ISIS] kept civilians kidnapped for more than six months against air strikes in the center of the city. I saw them [civilians] many times through my [rifle] scope.” He says the ISIS fighters would use civilians as shields when crossing streets “so we cannot shoot them.”
After the convoy departed, the SDF closed in on the last ISIS-held areas around the national hospital and stadium, liberated on October 17. He says they found 300 civilians who had hidden from ISIS and had not been forced onto the convoy and therefore survived. “So we saved a lot of lives there and this is a good job at least.”
According to the coalition’s public affairs office response to an inquiry from the Post
, the coalition was present at talks in Raqqa regarding the convoy “but was not an active participant.”
The agreement was made between the Raqqa Civil Council and Arab tribal elders “despite coalition disagreement with letting armed ISIS terrorists leave Raqqa.”The coalition did not engage the bus convoy which it says “is estimated to have saved 3,500 civilian lives prior to the liberation of Raqqa.”
The coalition seeks to remind observers that “a lot of fighting remains [in order] to defeat remaining pockets of ISIS, and much hard work remains to ensure ISIS’ lasting defeat in the region.” This means continued work with the SDF to provide security and stabilization.
So far 7.5 million civilians have been liberated in Iraq and Syria, as well as 103,000 sq. km. of land. “The coalition objects to his [BBC Sommerville’s] assertion that we were a party to a ‘secret deal.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. We have been open and consistent with our stance on this issue.”
Questions still remain about two key issues involved. In late August 2017 a convoy of 300 ISIS fighters and 300 civilians was allowed to leave the Syrian-Lebanese border area and pass through Syrian regime territory toward the Iraqi border.
The coalition interdicted the convoy’s progress once it reached ISIS areas, cratering a road in front of it. “It has not managed to link up with any other ISIS elements in eastern Syria,” OIR spokesman Col. Dillon said on September 1.
The coalition also said it would strike any ISIS elements that attempted to meet that convoy. Why the difference of strategy against the Raqqa convoy, which was ten times the size of the September convoy? Asked about monitoring the Raqqa convoy, the coalition responds: “For details pertaining to the arrangement in Raqqa and how the screening, movement and tracking of people exiting Raqqa took place, please talk to the Raqqa Civil Council or local Syrian Arab tribal elders.”
But the tribal elders and Raqqa Council had no way of monitoring these dozens of buses and trucks once they entered ISIS territory; only the coalition has the resources to monitor it from the air. A large question therefore remains as to what became of the fighters, as well as allegations that they took hostages, including women.
The BBC said that after the convoy made it to eastern Syria, some of the fighters sought to be smuggled to the Turkish border.
This “serves as a warning to the West of the threat from those freed from Raqqa,” Sommerville and Dalati wrote.
The controversial agreement shows the complications that the 70-nation US-led coalition has faced in fighting ISIS.
Because it partners “by, with and through” local forces, it cannot control aspects of the campaign – it can only advise on courses of action. As the war against ISIS continues in eastern Syria, some of the ISIS fighters who were able to escape may have to be fought again.