'They took the sex slaves with them'

A Syr­ian anti-ISIS fighter de­scribes to ‘Jerusalem Post’ how con­tro­ver­sial con­voy fled cen­tral city of Raqqa

Jerusalem Post - - REGIONAL NEWS - R #Z 4&5) + '3"/5;."/

“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.

(Rodi Said/Reuters)

‘WE HAD no choice.’ Fight­ers from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces take a break in Raqqa, Syria, last month.

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