Why the U.S. Allowed a Convoy of ISIS Fighters to Go Free

As Russian-backed forces and American-backed forces were closing in on the Euphrates River city of Deir al-Zour, above, American officials yielded to a Russian request to leave the Russian zone, which allowed the convoy to pass.

Needing to relieve himself, the man stepped out of a bus into the night air of the Syrian desert.

The bus was part of a convoy carrying 300 Islamic State fighters that had been stuck there for days, prevented by American bombers from moving forward and prevented by the presence of women and children from being bombed.

The man walked a short distance away and began to urinate.

An American Hellfire missile ended the excursion.

By the American military’s count, 20 Islamic State fighters in the convoy died like that.

Those killings were among the consolation prizes the Americans claimed after ending the two-week standoff this week, reversing a vow never to let the militants pass and yielding a tactical victory to the Islamic State.

American officials say the decision to withdraw was the result of a complicated trade-off of competing priorities and speaks to the kind of battleground Syria is, a three-dimensional chessboard with multiple players, constantly shifting strategies, and opportunities seized and abandoned on the fly.

“The truth is that war is messy and chaotic,” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “It’s all a mess, who’s got a right to do what at this point in Syria.”

The Americans had been furious about the convoy from the start. The Islamic State had cut a deal with the Syrian government and its Hezbollah militia allies to allow the fighters and their families safe passage to cross Syria from the Lebanese border in the west to ISIS-controlled territory in eastern Syria and Iraq.

Within days, American airstrikes cratered the highway in front of the convoy, stopping it in its tracks. American officials vowed not to let the convoy pass, or the fighters to return to the battlefield.

“Our coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling caliphate,” said Brett H. McGurk, the American presidential special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition.

But that American line in the sand was wiped away with a telephone call last Friday from Russian military headquarters in Syria to American headquarters in Baghdad. Russia asked the United States to remove aerial reconnaissance over the convoy, which both sides knew would allow the convoy to proceed.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit (ISIS-controlled areas as of Sept.11)

By The New York Times

The request was part of what the military calls “deconfliction,” a process to make sure the Russian-backed Syrian forces and the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces do not inadvertently attack one another while both are trying to battle ISIS.

Cooperation with the Russians was important since Russian-backed forces and American-supported forces were separately closing in on the Euphrates River city of Deir al-Zour, with both sides launching numerous air raids in the area.

Moreover, the convoy was pinned down near the town of Sukhna, well within the Russian side of the deconfliction line, in the area reserved for Russian warplanes to operate under a longstanding American-Russian agreement.

“The way the deconfliction has worked, there are certain areas where the Russians have a sway over what happens, and this is one of them,” Mr. Joscelyn said.

The United States did not want to undercut a process it would need to rely on later.

The Americans agreed to the request, and the convoy slipped into Islamic State territory late Wednesday night, arriving in Mayadin 17 days after setting out from the Lebanese border.

On Thursday it headed further south to Abu Kamal, on the Iraqi border, and by Friday, according to Syrian anti-regime activists and to Iraqi officials in the border area, parts of the convoy had crossed into Qaim, Iraq, in western Anbar Province, also an ISIS-held area, arousing anger among Iraqi officials.

By the time of the Russian request, the standoff over the convoy had started producing diminishing returns for the United States.

They had already killed large numbers of Islamic State fighters, with the stranded buses having turned into a “fortuitous” shooting gallery, the spokesman for the American-led coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, said

Hezbollah supporters welcomed Ahmad Maatouk, a fighter who was detained by Islamic State militants in Syria, upon his return to Lebanon on Thursday. Hezbollah had promised the convoy safe passage in exchange for the release of prisoners captured by ISIS.

As the Islamic State repeatedly sent rescuers down the single highway leading to the convoy, American warplanes and armed drones picked them off “with ease,” he said. Night vision technology made even midnight bathroom breaks perilous.

All told, American airstrikes had destroyed 40 ISIS rescue vehicles and killed 85 fighters, some from the convoy, others among would-be rescuers, Colonel Dillon said.

As the standoff stretched from days into weeks, the United States military was also concerned about bad publicity over the plight of the civilians stranded on the buses. Although food and water was being delivered to the convoy, temperatures were high in the desert and before it was over, according to a senior Hezbollah official in Syria, three babies had been born to women in the buses.

Colonel Dillon said this was not the main reason for the withdrawal but it was a factor.

Throughout the standoff, the Americans had been hampered by the presence of so many civilians, more than 300 according to Hezbollah. If the militants had intended them to be human shields, the strategy proved effective.

Hezbollah and the Syrian government, too, were concerned that the convoy get through. For Syria, whose government media suppressed news of the convoy, it was an embarrassment to see it stuck in the middle of its country, as many even pro-government Syrians commented on social media.

Its Hezbollah allies, and their Iranian backers, wanted the Islamic State to release prisoners and turn over the bodies of dead fighters. As a result, the senior Hezbollah official said, the Syrian government and Iran pressed Russia to close the file with the Americans.

“This was the deal to get ISIS fighters out of the Lebanese border area,” said Mr. Joscelyn. “The truth is even U.S.-backed forces have cut similar deals. Russia’s allies, Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah, cut this deal, and they probably wanted to abide by the deal because they want to be able to make deals in the future.”

As the convoy arrived in the middle Euphrates River Valley, the battle followed them there.

American airstrikes killed two senior Islamic State leaders in Mayadin last week, the military said. And Colonel Dillon said Thursday that airstrikes had killed senior ISIS leaders and destroyed weapons caches and other military targets in Mayadin and Abu Kamal.

In the city of Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border, residents reached by telephone said that ISIS fighters had begun filtering into the town, taking up residence in vacant homes.
“We heard they came from the deal made with Hezbollah,” said one resident, who gave only his tribal name, al-Salmani, out of fear of ISIS reprisals.

Source: The New York Times