The U.S.-led coalition was reportedly party to a deal that allowed hundreds of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) fighters to leave the besieged eastern city of Raqqa.
The agreement saw hardened militants and foreign fighters leave the city with their families in a convoy after months of the city being besieged by a Kurdish-Arab ground force backed by the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes and tactical advisers, according to a BBC investigation.
A spokesperson for the coalition admitted there was a deal agreed by locals and ground forces, but said it was largely coordinated with the Kurds and Arabs fighting the jihadi group on the ground.
“We didn’t want anyone to leave,” Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the Western coalition against ISIS, told the BBC.
“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,” he added.
Around 250 ISIS militants departed, with 3,500 of their family members leaving with them. An official described as a “Western officer” was present but did not take part in the discussions for the deal.
The BBC spoke to drivers in the convoy, and witnesses of the deal that played out. Banners were not to be allowed in the convoy into the desert, to prevent it looking like a celebration. The coalition admitted the existence of a deal, but
The coalition, in its response to a Newsweek request for comment, said it does not "make deals with terrorists" and pointed to an October 14 release that stated a "convoy of vehicles" was to depart Raqqa in an agreement brokered by local Arab tribal elders that would enable "civilians to depart Raqqa."
It rejected the BBC investigation's claim that the coalition was party a "secret deal" with ISIS, saying that "nothing could be further from the truth. Coalition messaging has been open and consistent on this issue."
But the release said it "purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists," referring to an Arabic acronym for ISIS. The BBC investigation reveals that ISIS fighters were included in the deal, not just civilians.
In the release, the coalition's director of operations Brigadier General Jonathan Braga said: "We do not condone any arrangement that allows Daesh terrorists to escape Raqqa without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else."
Even though the deal stipulated that no foreign fighters would be able to leave Raqqa alive, dozens did, the BBC investigation said. The fighters that did leave also took weapons and ammunition with them. Some went into ISIS-held territory in Syria, while others reportedly made their way to Turkey. It’s unclear which areas of Turkey they crossed into.
Raqqa served as the de-facto capital of the jihadi group’s caliphate from January 2014 onward when it overran Syrian rebels in the city. It then served as the background for gruesome beheading videos of western hostages by foreign fighters, particularly Mohammed Emwazi—known as Jihadi John—who killed American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The coalition and the SDF defeated ISIS in Raqqa last month.
The fight against ISIS in Syria is continuing despite the militant group having lost nearly all of its territory in the country. Pockets of jihadis aligned with ISIS remain in areas across all of Syria, from Damascus, to the central desert, and the eastern borderlands wth Iraq.
“The enemy hasn't declared that they're done with the area yet, so we'll keep fighting as long as they want to fight,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon.
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