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Coalition suspends monitoring of ISIS convoy as Syrian regime advances

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 8, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq -- The U.S.-led coalition withdrew its aircraft monitoring a stranded 11-bus Islamic State convoy of militants and their families on Friday morning, as Syrian pro-regime forces advanced past the stopped vehicles in the country’s eastern desert, military officials said.

Aircraft had been monitoring the situation for more than a week to prevent ISIS fighters from slipping into extremist-held territory to the east along the Iraqi frontier, and warplanes had been picking off fighters venturing away from the buses and vehicles coming from ISIS territory to rescue them.

The coalition aircraft were pulled from the airspace “to ensure safe deconfliction of efforts to defeat ISIS,” according to an Operation Inherent Resolve release. The move was made at the request of Russian officials during an assault on Deir al-Zour, where Syrian pro-regime forces broke a three-year ISIS siege earlier this week.

The U.S. and Russia have broadly maintained a special “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of U.S. and Russian air and ground forces in Syria since 2015.

Friday’s move by the Syrian regime could create an opening for ISIS fighters to flee or to be escorted to safety, rather than left as sitting ducks for coalition aircraft. Syrian President Assad’s backers in Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group had promised the convoy safe passage, though it claimed its responsibility was over once the buses left Syrian government-held territory.

Under the Hezbollah-brokered deal last week that upset coalition and Iraqi officials, about 300 ISIS fighters and as many women and children were loaded onto 17 buses heading from Syria’s Lebanese border, through government-held territory, bound for ISIS-controlled areas to the east.

The U.S.-led coalition vowed to prevent the convoy from reaching the Iraqi border, where ISIS controls a pocket along the Euphrates River with about 8,000 fighters. Airstrikes cratered the road and disabled a bridge ahead of the buses, forcing six to head back to Syrian government-held areas near Palmyra.

The remaining 11, supplied occasionally with food and water from the Syrian regime, had been stuck in the desert, where morale was running thin and the militants were observed fist-fighting by the coalition’s eyes in the sky.

Some Syrian opposition activists and Iraqi officials had feared that the militants had been rescued in civilian vehicles and taken to the border areas, but coalition officials denied it and said they would maintain a watch over the buses.

On Thursday, Army Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a coalition spokesman, said the convoy had benefited the anti-ISIS alliance by allowing them to take out dozens of fighters and vehicles they’d otherwise have had to hunt for.

In the face of criticism that coalition efforts to prevent the buses’ progress could lead to the death of women and children, U.S. officials have repeatedly said the Syrian regime and Hezbollah are to blame for the situation.

Dillon said the botched deal had blown back in Hezbollah’s face and was probably something the group wished it had never agreed to.

Hours after Dillon’s comments, the Hezbollah-backed Syrian regime advanced through the area.

“The regime’s advance past the convoy underlines continued Syrian responsibility for the buses and terrorists,” said Brig. Gen. Jon Braga, the coalition’s operations director. “As always, we will do our utmost to ensure that the ISIS terrorists do not move toward the border of our Iraqi partners.”

garland.chad@stripes.com
@chadgarland
  

In a June 2017 capture from a DOD video, Col. Ryan S. Dillon, spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, talks to reporters.
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