Read original at The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The U.S.-led coalition Wednesday conducted airstrikes to prevent buses transporting Daesh (ISIS) fighters to eastern Syria, and hit vehicles carrying militants after warning that actions would be taken against a Hezbollah-brokered deal to evacuate militants from the Lebanese-Syrian border area. The coalition confirmed reports that it targeted Daesh militants after the Hezbollah deal saw the last roughly 300 militants and families leave territory straddling the Lebanese-Syrian border Tuesday.
Convoys of buses started carrying the over 600 Daesh militants and civilians from Monday to Syria’s Albukamal, near the Syrian-Iraqi border in the eastern countryside of Deir al-Zor.
“In accordance with the law of armed conflict, the coalition cratered the road heading east between Hamimah [in Homs province] and Albukamal [in eastern Syria] to prevent the further transport of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners,” the coalition’s statement read.
Although it stressed that it hadn’t targeted the actual convoy carrying the fighters and their families, the statement said other Daesh members were targeted.
“[The coalition] struck individual vehicles and fighters that were clearly identified as ISIS.”
The AP news agency reported Wednesday that a second strike targeted a Daesh convoy that was heading to meet the evacuees. The convoy was coming from the militant-held territory, the agency reported.
In the statement, the U.S.-led coalition distanced itself from the deal and launched a fierce tirade against the Syrian regime and its partners.
“Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control,” the statement said. “ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with is not a lasting solution. This is just further evidence of why coalition military action is necessary to defeat ISIS in Syria.”
The coalition statement added that it would continue to take the necessary measures against Daesh when it is able to do so while avoiding civilian casualties.
The deal to move Daesh militants came as part of negotiations to unveil the fate of Lebanese Army soldiers that were taken hostage by the group in 2014.
Nine servicemen were kidnapped by the group when Daesh, along with the Nusra Front (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) briefly overran the northeastern border town of Arsal.
The deal saw the evacuation of the remaining militants in return for knowing the servicemen’s fate.
Iraqi officials also blasted the agreement earlier in the week. Both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi expressed their discontent Tuesday, saying any deal needs to ensure Iraq’s stability and security.
The reaction prompted a lengthy explanation and response from Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah Wednesday.
“The deal to move Daesh militants and their families was from Syrian land to another Syrian land. This means from the western Qalamoun to Syria’s Deir al-Zor, not from Lebanese land to Iraqi land,” Nasrallah said.
He went on to defend the transfer, saying the deal was for a small number of fighters, only “310 defeated and broken militants” who would not “change the equation of the battle in the Deir al-Zor governorate as it is reported that there are tens of thousands of [Daesh] fighters already there.”
Nasrallah also addressed criticism aimed at the Syrian regime and the role it played in the deal. “It is not right to point fingers of blame and doubt at the Syrian leadership,” he said. “The agreement was a Hezbollah agreement and the Syrian leadership, which is fighting in large numbers, agreed to it.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition activist group, announced on its website that those overseeing the deal from Hezbollah and Daesh were looking for new pathways and routes for the convoy to complete its route.
The Observatory added that the convoy of those leaving Syria’s western Qalamoun was stuck at the regime-held town of Hamimah until Wednesday morning.
It said the reason for the holdup wasn’t clear but may have been linked to the Syrian regime trying to extract additional last-minute concessions from Daesh.
Other U.S. officials criticized the deal via Twitter, with Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk said the move was “irreconcilable.”
“#ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent,” McGurk said.
In a separate tweet, he said the international coalition against Daesh would take the necessary measures to prevent the militants from entering Iraq.
“Our @coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter #Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling ‘caliphate.’”
The reports of the strike came after The New York Times quoted coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon as saying that the necessary measures against the transfer would be taken.
“We will take action where necessary; those would be absolutely lucrative targets,” Dillon told the Times. “We are monitoring them in real time.”
He then said: “The coalition, we are not party to this agreement between Lebanon, Hezbollah and [Daesh]. Their claim of fighting terrorism rings hollow when they allow known terrorists to transit territory under their control. [Daesh] is a global threat, and relocating terrorists from one place to another is not a lasting solution.”