U.S. disrupts evacuation of IS militants in Syria
The U.S.-led coalition said Wednesday it carried out airstrikes to disrupt a convoy of Islamic State militants being evacuated from the Lebanon-Syria border to an IS-held area in eastern Syria near Iraq, without targeting the evacuees themselves.
Coalition aircraft struck a small bridge and cratered a road to hinder the convoy’s progress. The coalition also struck a separate group of IS militants travelling to meet the convoy, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman.
U.S. officials have criticized the transfer of hundreds of militants and civilians who are bound for an IS-held area near the Iraqi border, saying the extremists should be killed on the battlefield. The evacuation came as part of a controversial deal brokered by the Lebanese Hezbollah group to clear IS from an area along the Lebanon-Syria border.
The coalition is reluctant to strike the actual convoy of evacuees because the fighters have wives and children travelling with them, said a U.S. official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss military details and requested anonymity. Although Hezbollah members are believed to be the ones escorting the convoy, the Syrian government’s involvement creates further risk for the U.S. if the coalition were to hit it.
The coalition nevertheless said in a statement that it is not bound by the evacuation agreement. There are about 300 militants and almost as many family members on buses being evacuated under the deal.
“We are monitoring their location in real time,” Dillon said, adding that the coalition “will not rule out strikes against IS fighters being moved.”
He added that any strike will be in accordance with “the law of armed conflict and if we are able to do so and can discriminate and discern the difference between fighters and civilians.”
Syrian opposition activists said the convoy, which left the Lebanon-Syria border on Tuesday, is still in government-held territory in eastern Syria.
The evacuation agreement, the first such publicized deal, had already angered many Iraqis, who accused Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah of dumping the militants on the Iraqi border rather than eradicating them.
The top U.S. envoy for the international coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, tweeted Wednesday that IS “terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent.” McGurk added that the anti-IS coalition will help ensure that “these terrorists can never” enter Iraq.
Lebanese troops launched an attack against IS on Aug. 18, while Syrian troops and Hezbollah fighters launched a simultaneous offensive from the Syrian side of the border. The militants agreed to a cease-fire over the weekend once they had been squeezed into a small area along the frontier.
Lebanon has defended the agreement, in which the militants are said to have revealed the location of the remains of nine Lebanese soldiers who were captured in 2014.
The remains of several people have been uncovered in the border area, and DNA tests are underway to determine whether they belong to the missing soldiers.