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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

You don't beat ISIL by dumping them somewhere else, US tells Syria and Russia

US envoy said extremists should be killed rather than bussed from the Lebanese-Syrian border region to a town near the Iraqi border without Baghdad's consent

Hizbollah reached a deal with ISIL that involved the transfer of 308 ISIL fighters along with their families from the Syrian-Lebanese borders to the eastern Syrian city of Albu Kamal. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters
Hizbollah reached a deal with ISIL that involved the transfer of 308 ISIL fighters along with their families from the Syrian-Lebanese borders to the eastern Syrian city of Albu Kamal. Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

The US-led coalition has carried out an air strike to block ISIL fighters evacuated from Lebanon from reaching eastern Syria, its spokesman said on Wednesday.

About 300 ISIL fighters and their families were headed to a town held by the extremist group near Syria's eastern frontier with Iraq after being evacuated on Monday from the border region between Lebanon and Syria under a ceasefire deal.

"Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq's consent," Brett McGurk, US presidential envoy to the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, wrote on Twitter.

"Our @coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter #Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling 'caliphate'."

Coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon confirmed that a US-led bombing raid had blocked the convoy's route.

"To prevent the convoy from moving further east, we cratered the road and destroyed a small bridge," Mr Dillon said, without providing further details on their location.

"ISIL is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with is not a lasting solution," he added.

The US defended its actions to block the convoy, saying, "The coalition was not a party to any agreement between the Lebanese Hizbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIL."

A statement from the administration also hit out at Russia and its support for the Assad regime.

"Their words ring hollow when they cut deals and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control."

Lebanon declared victory against ISIL after negotiations with the extremist group saw hundreds of its fighters evacuated from the Lebanese-Syrian border on Monday, a move that was met with heavy criticism by Iraq and the United States.

A ceasefire came into effect on August 27 after a week-long confrontation along Lebanon's north-east border with Syria; the Lebanese army fought ISIL on one side of the border, while Hizbollah and the Syrian army battled the extremist group on the other.

Nine Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped by ISIL in 2014 when they briefly overran the border town of Arsal. On Wednesday, sources and local media reports said six bodies found in areas retaken from ISIL along the Syrian border had been identified. It was not immediately clear if any belonged to the captured soldiers, however.

“To know the fate of the [kidnapped] soldiers was the goal of the battle, and we have achieved that. We would have hoped to have been celebrating with them alive,” Lebanese president Michel Aoun said on Wednesday in a live address from the presidential palace.

“Today, I tell the Lebanese and the whole world that we have beat terrorism.”

He praised the Lebanese army for carrying out the operation that ended with the ISIL deal.

Buses transport members of ISIL to Deir Ezzor under part of a deal brokered by Syria and Lebanon to end three years of jihadist presence in the area. AFP Photo
Buses transport members of ISIL to Deir Ezzor under part of a deal brokered by Syria and Lebanon to end three years of jihadist presence in the area. AFP Photo

About 308 ISIL fighters left the border area on Monday under a ceasefire deal, the terms of which included ISIL identifying where the group had buried the soldiers’ bodies.

General Joseph Aoun, the commander of the Lebanese army, gave a speech following the president’s and said the decision to negotiate with ISIL was made to preserve the lives of Lebanese civilians and soldiers.

"I had two choices: either I continue the battle and not know the soldiers' fate, or I submit to the situation and find out. Their souls are my responsibility," Gen Aoun told reporters.

Iraq, meanwhile, accused Syria and Hizbollah of trying to dump the extremists on the Iraqi border rather than eradicating them.

Prime minister Haider Al Abadi said the ISIL fighters had been given free passage to the eastern border with Iraq, making them a threat to Baghdad’s security.

Security forces in Lebanon are taking extra precautions, the army said in a statement
Security forces in Lebanon are taking extra precautions, the army said in a statement

Washington agrees. The harsh language and combined criticism of Hizbollah, Mr Assad and Russia exposes the regime’s game, said Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). “The US-led Coalition realizes what Mr Assad's game is: to move ISIL fighters to the Syrian-Iraqi border region because the regime knows that the Americans will get there first” Mr Heras told The National.

The end game is “to make it tougher for the Coalition to capture Deir al-Zor province from ISIL, by relocating their fighters there” the defence expert said.

The statement also validates America's role and campaign against ISIL. “While the regime and its allies are trying to frame the Coalition campaign against ISIL in Syria as illegal and unnecessary, the Coalition is pushing back and saying by cutting this deal with ISIL, Mr Assad and his allies, especially Russia, have no moral ground to stand on.”

And by mentioning Russia by name, the Trump administration is telling Moscow and Damascus "to stop the charade that Mr Assad cares about beating ISIL in eastern Syria,” said Mr Heras.

Iraqi Kurdistan security authority also raised questions about the “suspicious” transfer of hundreds of ISIL militants, saying that the decision to transfer the troops with their arms was counterproductive.

“According to an agreement between ISIL terrorists, the Lebanese Hizbollah and the Syrian regime, hundreds of ISIL militants left the Lebanese border areas and were taken with their arms and ammunition toward the Iraqi border areas,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement released on Tuesday.

A commander in the pro-Assad military alliance said Syria and Hizbollah had accepted ISIL’s evacuation rather than a fight to the end, to avert a bloody war of attrition.

ISIL fighters were sheltering among civilians and to complete the offensive would have involved great bloodshed, the commander said.