Se­cret deal let ISIS fight­ers flee from Raqqa

Pact bro­kered by Syr­ian of­fi­cials meant to end fight­ing, spare lives

The Straits Times - - WORLD -

DA­M­AS­CUS Hun­dreds of Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fight­ers and their fam­ily mem­bers were al­lowed to leave the ter­ror group’s de facto cap­i­tal of Raqqa in Syria, as an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers closed in last month, un­der a se­cret deal, ac­cord­ing to a BBC ex­pose.

The deal was bro­kered by lo­cal of­fi­cials af­ter four months of fight­ing left the city dev­as­tated and al­most de­void of peo­ple.

The logic was to spare lives and bring the fight­ing to an abrupt end, safe­guard­ing Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) fight­ers op­posed to ISIS. But the ar­range­ment also en­abled hard­ened ISIS mil­i­tants to es­cape from the city and dis­perse far and wide across Syria, and pos­si­bly over­seas.

United States De­fence Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis had de­scribed the fight against ISIS as a war of “an­ni­hi­la­tion” in May. And af­ter Raqqa was lib­er­ated, coali­tion forces said that only a few dozen fight­ers had been able to leave, all of them lo­cals.

But one of the lorry driv­ers who spir­ited the mil­i­tants out of Raqqa re­vealed: “We took out around 4,000 peo­ple, in­clud­ing women and chil­dren – our ve­hi­cles and their ve­hi­cles com­bined. When we en­tered Raqqa, we thought there were 200 peo­ple to col­lect. In my ve­hi­cle alone, I took 112 peo­ple.”

The con­voy car­ry­ing the group was 6km to 7km long, ac­cord­ing to an­other driver, with al­most 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of ISIS’ own ve­hi­cles.

Ten trucks were l oaded with weapons and am­mu­ni­tion alone.

And be­ly­ing the claims that for­eign fight­ers were not al­lowed to leave, a lorry driver told the BBC: “There was a huge num­ber of for- eign­ers. France, Turkey, Azer­bai­jan, Pak­istan, Ye­men, Saudi, China, Tu­nisia, Egypt...”

One lorry driver said he and other truck­ers were sub­jected to three days of hard driv­ing. Some of the ISIS fight­ers and even their fam­ily mem­bers had sui­cide belts strapped around their waists as they sat perched in the back of the trucks. Some of the driv­ers were even tor­tured by the mil­i­tants they were trans­port­ing. “We were scared from the mo­ment we en­tered Raqqa,” said the driver. “We were sup­posed to go in with the SDF, but we went alone. As soon as we en­tered, we saw ISIS fight­ers with their weapons and sui­cide belts on. They booby-trapped our trucks. If some­thing were to go wrong in the deal, they would bomb the en­tire con­voy. Even their chil­dren and women had sui­cide belts on.”

The US-led coali­tion now ad­mits that the deal took place. “We didn’t want any­one to leave,” said Colonel Ryan Dil­lon, spokesman for Opera- tion In­her­ent Re­solve, the Western coali­tion against ISIS. “But this goes to the heart of our strat­egy, ‘by, with and through’ lo­cal lead­ers on the ground. It comes down to Syr­i­ans – they are the ones fight­ing and dy­ing, they get to make the de­ci­sions re­gard­ing oper­a­tions.”

While it was ISIS’ cap­i­tal, Raqqa was also a cage for the hard­ened mil­i­tants. Now that the mil­i­tants are free, there ex­ists a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity that many of them are not done fight­ing.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The deal bro­kered by lo­cal of­fi­cials af­ter four months of fight­ing in the Syr­ian city of Raqqa sought to safe­guard Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces fight­ers (left) op­posed to ISIS, but the ar­range­ment also en­abled ISIS mil­i­tants to leave the city and dis­perse across Syria, and pos­si­bly over­seas.

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