Buses carrying ISIL militants and their families across Syria had yet to reach their destination on Thursday as the US military attacked fellow fighters approaching the convoy and threatened further action.
Col Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, said on Thursday that the US military was continuing to closely monitor the movement of buses carrying about 300 ISIL fighters and their families. The US bombed roads in Syria on Wednesday to prevent the convoy from reaching the city of Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The ISIL members were being bussed from the Lebanese-Syrian border after an agreement was reached last weekend to end fighting between ISIL and the Lebanese and Syrian militaries and Hizbollah.
Col Dillon told The National that the US had also struck "ISIL vehicles and fighters that were moving from ISIL-held territory in eastern Syria towards the buses" on Thursday, but not the convoy itself.
“We are still monitoring the convoy in real time; the ISIL convoy of buses are moving. For operational security purposes we will not disclose the location of the convoy,” Col Dillon said. “The convoy has not met up with fellow ISIL elements.”
The controversial deal has highlighted the number of different actors in Syria’s six-year-old civil war and their competing interests.
Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed criticism of the deal on Wednesday evening, particularly from Iraqi leaders who said the ISIL fighters would cross the border into Iraq. He pointed out that Hizbollah was also on the front lines of the fight against ISIL around Albu Kamal and the nearby city of Deir Ezzor, one of ISIL’s last strongholds in Syria.
“The agreement has decided to transfer a number of armed men from the Syrian territory to Syrian territory and not to Iraqi territory,” Mr Nasrallah said. “We are transporting these defeated militants from a front where we are fighting to another front where we are fighting.”
The deal was struck between Hizbollah, the Syrian government and the Lebanese government after eight days of fighting that left ISIL militants trapped between Hizbollah and the Syrian government and the Lebanese army. ISIL fighters had held positions in an area straddling the Lebanese-Syrian border since 2014.
Iraqi politicians, including prime minister Haider Al Abadi, said they feared the militants would enter the Iraqi city of Al Qaim from Albu Kamal. ISIL controls the border region between the two cities, as well as Al Qaim.
“This agreement between Hizbollah with Daesh is very dangerous,” said Mohammed Al Karbouli, a member of the Iraqi parliament from Anbar province, where Al Qaim is located.
“The ministry of foreign affairs should be told what is behind all of that. I am asking the Iraqi government to retake Al Qaim as soon as possible,” Mr Al Karbouli said. “All the agreements that are happening outside the country will always be paid for with Iraqi blood.”
But not all Iraqi politicians who spoke to The National this week were concerned.
“They have transferred them to the killing zone. They are about 300 fighters, so we are ready to kill all of them. We don’t need all this propaganda against the agreement,” said Ahmed Al Assadi, another member of parliament and a spokesman for the Hashed Al Shaabi, a group of Iraqi militias that fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, sometimes in co-ordination with Hizbollah. “We are ready to push out all Daesh members from Iraq.”
ISIL is increasingly under pressure in the area inside Syria where the fighters were supposed to relocate, as well as on the Iraqi side of the border.
The deal struck with ISIL was not the first negotiation between Hizbollah and militants fighting the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Last month, around 10,000 Syrian fighters and civilians left Lebanon after Hizbollah struck deals with other militant groups in northern Lebanon. In recent years, the Syrian government has also struck a number of local deals with rebel groups that have led to relocations of fighters and civilians within Syria.
A source inside Syria familiar with many of those negotiations said that deals like the one struck with ISIL represented the best way forward in ending the war in Syria.
“The first deal to evacuate insurgents rather than fight them to the death took place in Homs in 2014 and that established a pattern that is without precedent in wars as far as I can tell,” the source said. “Over and over again the dominant military actor has allowed the weaker and almost defeated enemy to be safely evacuated to enemy territory.”
“These deals are more durable but of course there will have to be an inevitable showdown with the extremists sent to insurgent or ISIL-held territory,” the source said.
The source downplayed the likelihood the ISIL fighters would move from Syria to Iraq.
“The most likely front they will go to is Deir Ezzor, where they are most needed to fight the Syrian government and its allies. ISIL has lost in Iraq, there's no point going there.”
Earlier this week, Mr Nasrallah addressed the particulars of the deal with ISIL, explaining that many of ISIL’s demands, including the release of ISIL prisoners in Lebanon and a deal that would be carried out in multiple stages, had been rejected.
“From the very first moment, Daesh demanded a ceasefire,” Mr Nasrallah said. “Neither we nor the Lebanese army nor the Syrian army ever thought of agreeing on a ceasefire to start negotiations. When Daesh found itself cornered and before a decisive battle, it gave in and collapsed. Then it had no other choice except accepting our conditions.”
Mr Nasrallah also said that some of Hizbollah’s demands were not met, as ISIL claimed it was not in possession of bodies and captives that Hizbollah and the Lebanese government had requested be turned over as part of a deal.
Those captives included nine Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by militants in 2014. The Lebanese army believes it has now recovered the remains of those soldiers, but is waiting for DNA tests to confirm that bodies found this week are indeed the missing servicemen, who ISIL is believed to have executed.
The families of the soldiers have also criticised the deal, as have residents of the Lebanese border town of Al Qaa, which was struck by ISIL suicide bombers in 2016. Both groups have said they would have preferred to see ISIL fighters brought to justice rather than allowed to leave.