The US-led coalition has carried out an air strike to block Islamic State fighters from reaching eastern Syria after they were evacuated from Lebanon. The fighters were heading for the town of Al Bukamal, which borders Iraq.
The evacuations were part of a ceasefire deal the Islamic State struck with the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, as well as the Lebanese Army, according to press reports. The Islamic State was to surrender its enclave in the Syrian-Lebanese border area, hand over the bodies of a dead Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) member and two Hezbollah fighters, reveal the burial site of several Lebanese army soldiers and free a Hezbollah prisoner, according to officials and media reports.
The agreement follows a week-long offensive against the Sunni jihadist group. Press reports indicate that approximately 300 Islamic State fighters and their families were bused out.
The IRGC has pushed Lebanese Hezbollah – its proxy – to retrieve the body of the deceased guardsman, First Lieutenant Mohsen Hojjaji, who has become a household name in Iran. The Islamic State posted footage of Hojjaji’s capture and beheading following a raid near Jamouna on the Syrian-Iraqi border earlier this month. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, IRGC-controlled militia accuses US of strike to hide Islamic State raid near Syrian border.]
Seven Iranian operatives and more than 40 Iraqi militiamen died in the raid, according to a militia chief. In a cover up attempt, the IRGC has peddled a conspiracy theory that the US provided direct military support to the Islamic State in the attack. Since then, the IRGC has publicized drone strikes against forces loyal to the self-declared caliphate in the area.
The “Coalition was not a party to any agreement between Lebanese Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and ISIS,” the US-led Coalition’s press release stated. “Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control.”
“The Coalition has not struck the convoy,” the statement continued. “In according to the law of armed conflict, the Coalition cratered the road heading between Humaymah and Abul Kamal to prevent the further transport of ISIS fighters to the border area of our Iraqi partners and struck individual vehicles and fighters that were clearly identified as ISIS.”
“ISIS is a global threat; relocating terrorists from one place to another for someone else to deal with, is not a lasting solution,” the Coalition added. “This is just further evidence of why Coalition military action is necessary to defeat ISIS in Syria.”
Several hours prior to the reported airstrike, Brett McGurk, the US presidential envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, tweeted that “Irreconcilable #ISIS terrorists should be killed on the battlefield, not bused across #Syria to the Iraqi border without #Iraq’s consent.” He added: “Our @coalition will help ensure that these terrorists can never enter #Iraq or escape from what remains of their dwindling ‘caliphate.’”
Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al Abadi also criticized the deal as “unacceptable to Iraq.”
Earlier today, Iran’s state media had claimed that the deal had stalled at Humaymah because the Islamic State headquarters had refused to accept the evacuated fighters, as they had not fought to the death.