While some reports about the cooperation between ISIS and US forces in Syria remain questionable, in general, the fact of this cooperation is a widely known secret. Even the mainstream media admits this.
BBC has published information about a secret deal that let hundreds of ISIS fighters escape from Raqqa, under the gaze of the US-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city.
According to BBC, the deal to let ISIS fighters escape from the de facto capital of the Caliphate, Raqqa had been arranged by local officials,. It came after four months of fighting that left the city obliterated. Neither the US-led coalition, nor the US-backed SDF wanted to admit their part in arranging the convoy that led some of ISIS’s most notorious members and dozens of foreign fighters spread out across Syria, even making it as far as Turkey.
“We were scared from the moment we entered Raqqa,” said one of the drivers of the convoy. “We were supposed to go in with the SDF, but we went alone. As soon as we entered, we saw ISIS fighters with their weapons and suicide belts on. They booby-trapped our trucks. If something were to go wrong in the deal, they would bomb the entire convoy. Even their children and women had suicide belts on.”
The SDF cleared Raqqa of media presence. Publicly, the SDF said that only a few dozen fighters had been able to leave, all of them locals. This contradicts what one truck driver states: “We took out around 4,000 people including women and children — our vehicle and their vehicles combined. When we entered Raqqa, we thought there were 200 people to collect. In my vehicle alone, I took 112 people.” Another driver says the convoy was six to seven kilometres long. It included almost 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of the Islamic State group’s own vehicles. Ten trucks were loaded with weapons and ammunition, according to the drivers’ testimonials and secretly filmed footage.
The SDF didn’t want the retreat from Raqqa to look like an escape to victory. No flags or banners would be allowed to be flown from the convoy as it left the city, the deal stipulated. Despite assurances from the SDF, foreign fighters — those not from Syria and Iraq — were also able to join the convoy, according to the drivers. They said people from France, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi, China, Tunisia, Egypt among others were granted passage.
In light of the investigation, the coalition now admits the part it played in the deal. Some 250 ISIS fighters were allowed to leave Raqqa, with 3,500 of their family members. “We didn’t want anyone to leave,” says Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition against ISIS. “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 says. While a Western officer was present for the negotiations, they allegedly didn’t take an “active part” in the discussions. Colonel Dillon maintains, though, that only four foreign fighters left and they are now in SDF custody.
Along the route, many people BBC spoke to said they heard coalition aircraft, sometimes drones, following the convoy. From the cab of his truck, one of the drivers watched as a coalition warplane flew overhead, dropping illumination flares, which lit up the convoy and the road ahead. The coalition now confirms that while it did not have its personnel on the ground, it monitored the convoy from the air.
An ISIS intelligence chief was on the convoy out of the city on October 12. Now in jail on the Turkish-Syrian border, he has revealed details of what happened to the convoy when it made it safely to ISIS territory. He says the convoy went to the countryside of eastern Syria, not far from the border with Iraq. According to him, thousands escaped.
“I remained with a group which had set its mind on making its way to Turkey,” he says. “We hired a smuggler to navigate us out of SDF-controlled areas. He abandoned us midway. We were left to fend for ourselves in the midst of SDF areas. From then on, we disbanded and it was every man for himself.”
The SDF continue to maintain that no deal was done. As far as the coalition is concerned, there was no transfer of hostages from ISIS to coalition or SDF hands. Dozens of foreign fighters, according to eyewitnesses, joined the exodus. The deal to free ISIS was about maintaining good relations between the Kurds leading the fight and the Arab communities who surround them, BBC stipulates.