U.S. airstrikes disrupt evacuation of militants
Islamic State convoy was leaving border of Lebanon, Syria.
U.S. airstrikes blocked the advance of an Islamic State convoy carrying militants toward Iraq on Wednesday, derailing a Hezbollah-negotiated deal that removed the extremists from the Lebanon-Syria border, where they have been for years.
The airstrikes came amid U.S. criticism of the deal, reflecting growing outrage within the Trump administration over the decision to give the militants safe passage from the battlefield instead of killing them, and of Iranbacked Hezbollah’s leading role in the effort.
U.S. officials said the airstrikes to disrupt the fleeing militants were intended to send a strong signal that the deal, while helping to clear the Islamic State from the border, undermined a broader U.S.-led strategy for defeating the group in Syria and Iraq.
More than 48 hours after they left the Syria-Lebanon border for eastern Syria, the buses carrying 300 militants and almost as many of their relatives were stuck in a desert area near the frontier with Iraq.
It was not clear how the standoff would end. Syrian activists said alternate routes were being considered to bring the militants to Boukamal, an Islamic State-controlled town on the Iraqi border.
But officials of the U.S.-led coalition said they would continue to monitor the convoy and weren’t ruling out more airstrikes.
“Irreconcilable terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across Syria to the Iraqi border without Iraq’s consent,” Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, said in a tweet.
Iraq also reacted angrily to the evacuation.
Later Wednesday, the coalition said its warplanes struck a small bridge and cratered a road to hinder the convoy without targeting the evacuees. Airstrikes also hit a separate group of Islamic State militants traveling to meet the convoy, according to Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman.
Responding to the criticism but not addressing the airstrikes, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement that negotiating with the militants was the “only way” to resolve the “humanitarian and national” issue of finding the remains of nine Lebanese soldiers the militants kidnapped in 2014.
Hezbollah is a significant player in Lebanon with government ministers and lawmakers, while the role of its fighters also has been growing in Syria, where it is helping shore up the Iran-allied government of President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian government, backed by Russian air power and Iranian-organized militias including Hezbollah, has focused its military campaign in recent weeks on Deir el-Zour, where government troops have been besieged for years in the provincial capital.
Dillon criticized Moscow and Damascus for allowing the buses to travel through territory they control.
“To say they are serious about defeating IS looks suspect right now,” Dillon said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun (center) speaks to journalists in Baabda, Lebanon, on Wednesday. Aoun praised the Lebanese army for the operation that ended with the deal to evacuate IS fighters and their families.