More than four months of relentless fighting and continual airstrikes have left Raqqa in ruins and almost completely devoid of people. The Syrian Democratic Forces, along with the U.S.- and British-led coalition, have successfully managed to capture the city, which is also the capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State.
What seemingly managed to slip under the public radar is the fact that local Syrian officials made a deal with ISIS fighters that allowed both them and their families to escape unharmed. Earlier this week in an in-depth expose, the BBC revealed details about the ghastly deal that took place in Raqqa at the beginning of October.
In wake of recent events in Syria, it seems that the reason Syrian officials made the deal was to end fighting in the city ruins and spare the lives of the Kurdish, Arab and other forces fighting the Islamic State. However, the fact that the mass exodus of ISIS fighters and their families was kept secret has raised numerous red flags when it comes to the safety of the region.
Why was the deal kept secret?
In keeping the mass escape of ISIS fighters from Raqqa secret, both local and coalition forces have made the public question their current operations and long-term military strategy in Syria. While the deal was seemingly made in order to preserve lives, its long-term repercussions had the potential to anger the public and halt any further operations against the IS. According to the BBC, it seems that other forces involved in the conflict, namely, Turkey and Russia, had little or no knowledge about the deal taking place.
The question remains whether or not U.S. and U.K. forces, both heavily present in the region, knew about the entire scope of the deal the Syrians had made with the IS. Current evidence, comprised of images and video footage captured by local SDF forces and statements from dozens of eyewitnesses, suggests that the coalition forces were present during the exodus of the Islamic State fighters.
How the deal tool place
By interviewing dozens of eyewitnesses, many of whom were truck drivers employed by the SDF to help evacuate ISIS fighters from Raqqa, BBC journalists were able to piece together a rough outline of how the event went down.
Eyewitnesses confirmed that the SDF initiated the mass escape of about 250 ISIS fighters and almost 4,000 members of their families. The SDF publicly stated that only a handful of fighters, all of whom were locals, had been able to leave Raqqa and that the majority of the IS forces have been either killed or captured.
However, truck drivers that were responsible for transporting said fighters claim that almost 50 of their trucks, along with a dozen buses and more than 100 of their own vehicles, left Raqqa on October 12. While being interviewed by BBC journalists, the drivers said that most of the trucks were booby-trapped and that almost all of the ISIS fighters they were transporting were wearing suicide belts, women and children included.
In spite of the agreement the IS made with local Syrian forces, which was that their fighters were only to bring their personal weapons with them, video footage shows dozens of trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition.
The deal also stated that no foreign fighters were to leave Raqqa. Their displacement from the confines of IS-controlled territory could pose a serious threat to the safety of Europe and the U.S. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis stated that the main intention of the U.S. is that “foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa.”
But those very foreign fighters–most of whom are from France, Britain, Turkey and Pakistan–managed to join the convoy and escape the recently-captured Raqqa. Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the Western coalition against IS, claims that only four foreign fighters left Raqqa and that all of them are now in the SDF’s custody.
In light of the BBC investigation, the coalition admitted to being part of the deal, with Col. Dillon maintaining that the final decision was left to the Syrians.
“They are the ones fighting and dying, they get to make the decisions regarding operations,” he said.
ISIS fighters being locked in Raqqa might be what halted terrorist activity in Europe
In order to salvage what was left of the city and establish a coalition stronghold in a strategically important place, Syrian forces might have opened the floodgates to more terrorist activity in Europe. According to witnesses to the event, a large portion of the evacuated IS forces were foreign fighters. A few of the truck drivers interviewed also noted that a large number of female fighters were also present.
But what are the implications from the fact that there were foreign nationals among the 4,000 who escaped from Raqqa? Being heavily attacked for the past four months, Raqqa kept all of the ISIS fighters close together and in one place, preventing them from spreading out across Syria. By allowing them to escape, both the SDF and coalition forces have enabled them to break into smaller groups and cross the borders undetected.
BBC journalists also interviewed smugglers working along the Syrian-Turkish border, all of whom have confirmed an unusually large increase in the number of foreigners trying to cross into Turkey. Having crossed into Turkey, the rest of Europe is a stone’s throw away for these French-, British- and Belgian-born ISIS fighters.
Whether or not the cost of freeing Raqqa was worth it remains largely unclear. With many of the escaped fighters vowing to return, the only thing that remains certain is the fact that the fighting is bound to continue.