The Controversial End of the Islamic State in Raqqa

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 14 November 2017

IS jihadists arriving south of Deir Ezzor city, September 2017

A deal was made between the “Syrian Democratic Forces,” the U.S.-led Coalition’s “partner force” in Syria that is wholly dominated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Islamic State (IS), which ostensibly evacuated the remnants of the IS jihadists—said to be between 300 and 500 militants, plus 400 “hostages” (i.e. women and children)—from Raqqa by 15 October. The U.S.-led Coalition said at the time, “do not condone” the deal, but the Coalition acknowledged that its PKK partner had to make these tactical calls, and there was a lot of local pressure from local tribal leaders to reach this deal given the devastation visited on the city. It now transpires, however, that this deal was the worst of all worlds: the Coalition ruined the city in its efforts to overcome IS’s tactical adaptations to the air campaign, and then allowed a scandalous number of IS jihadists to escape.

Quentin Sommerville, Riam Dalati, and others reported for the BBC today that nearly 4,000 people left in this final convoy, at least 250 of them jihadists, and thousands of family members. Three prior attempts at negotiations had failed; Coalition airstrikes on IS buildings, which included women and children, killing about five-hundred people between 10 and 11 October, broke IS’s resolve. Truck drivers came in from Tabqa on 12 October, told by the “SDF” that the job would take about six hours, and promised each of the drivers between $4,000 and $6,000. It was a lie: “Instead, it would take three days of hard driving, carrying a deadly cargo—hundreds of IS fighters, their families and tonnes of weapons and ammunition.”

The convoy that left Raqqa “was six to seven kilometres [three-and-a-half to four miles] long. It included almost 50 trucks, 13 buses and more than 100 of the Islamic State group’s own vehicles. … 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.”

The U.S. had administration had made plain that none of the foreign fighters were to leave Raqqa alive. Secretary of Defence James Mattis said in May: “We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive”. Brett McGurk, the U.S. representative to the anti-IS Coalition, said in an interview a month later: “Any foreign fighter who is here, who joined ISIS from a foreign country, and came into Syria, they will die here in Syria. That’s the mission. So if they’re in Raqqa, they’re going to die in Raqqa.” “But,” the BBC notes, “foreign fighters—those not from Syria and Iraq—were also able to join the convoy” that left Raqqa in October.

Col. Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, acknowledges that “a Western officer was present for the negotiations, [but insists] they didn’t take an ‘active part’ in the discussions.” British defence officials confirmed to the BBC that they knew of this deal, but acknowledged their shock at the scale.

Col. Dillon also claims “that only four foreign fighters left and they are now in SDF custody.” The truck drivers say this is flatly false. Every one of the trucks had three or four foreign fighters in them, and they were the most aggressive, verbally and physically abusing the drivers for being “infidels” all along the journey.

The convoy travelled through Shanine, about five miles north-east of Raqqa city, where a bridge caused a bottleneck. During this delay, the IS fighters got out of the trucks and went shopping in the local area. “After months of fighting and taking cover in bunkers, they were pale and hungry,”, the BBC reports. “They filed into [‘Mahmoud’s’] shop and, he says, they cleared his shelves. … Instant noodles, biscuits and snacks—they bought everything they could get their hands on. They left their weapons outside the shop. The only trouble he had was when three of the fighters spied some cigarettes … and tore up the boxes. … ‘Only three of them went rogue. Other IS fighters even chastised them.’ He says IS paid for what they took. Despite the abuse they suffered, the lorry drivers agreed—when it came to money, IS settled its bills,” amounting allegedly to about $800 each for the drivers. The PKK did not settle accounts, which is what left the drivers with enough resentment that they revealed this deal to the BBC.

Many IS members told the drivers and local inhabitants who interacted with the convoy that they would be back. The convoy drove into the deserts, passing through “the last SDF checkpoint, … a village between Markada and Al-Souwar,” and despite Coalition surveillance the IS jihadists disappeared. “It will take us a while to rid ourselves of that psychological fear,” said one resident. “We feel that they may be coming back for us, or will send sleeper agents. We’re still not sure that they’ve gone for good.”

Some of the IS jihadists have left Syria into Turkey. A number of smugglers tell the same story of an uptick in cross-border movements in the last few weeks. One smuggler tells the BBC that at least twenty families have crossed into Turkey just this week. Most of the IS jihadists who have transferred into Turkey after they were allowed out of Raqqa are foreign, notably from France and other European states, Chechnya, and Uzbekistan. One disillusioned IS fighter tells the BBC that there is a plan for a “day of reckoning”—i.e. a large terrorist attack—by French IS jihadists.

Turkey’s increased border security since 2014 made this smuggling operation more difficult, and indeed there were some important interceptions. Abu Musab al-Huthaifa had been IS’s intelligence chief in Raqqa, and had tried to get into Turkey to run operations there; had he not been let down by his smuggler, and abandoned in the middle of SDF territory, he might have made it. In custody, Abu Musab said what was evident: those who were let go in Raqqa went into the border area, “Wilayat al-Furat,” to regroup. Some IS fighters also went into the Greater Idlib zone, which contains the last of the mainstream rebellion in the north, though it is now dominated by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the former Syrian al-Qaeda branch.

Inside Syria, among the reasons this has caused such anger because it compounds a trend where the PKK has released batches of people arrested for suspected sympathies or ties to IS, while continuing to hold both its own political prisoners and displaying no vivacity in recovering or releasing those activists and other resistance elements detained by IS during its rule. Given the PKK’s pre-emptive attempts to discredit political groups that worked against IS and simultaneously opposed the PKK’s authoritarianism, there is suspicion that this policy is not accidental; that the PKK is in no hurry to secure freedom for those elements who have a demonstrated willingness to resist totalitarianism.

Beyond Syria, the revelation of these details has further antagonised Turkey. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement tonight saying:

It is an extremely grave and eye-opening revelation that the so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” dominated by PYD/YPG, the Syrian extension of the terrorist organization PKK, brokered a deal with the terrorist organization DAESH to evacuate a large number of DAESH terrorists from Raqqa while the operation to clear DAESH from Raqqa was already underway.

As we have emphasized on every occasion, the purpose of PYD/YPG in Syria is not to fight against DAESH, but to create illegitimate faits-accomplis on the ground, to occupy territories and to alter their demographic structures.

The deal sets a new example of the fact that fighting one terrorist organization with another would eventually result in these terrorist organizations colluding with each other.

We also deplore the statements of the spokespersons of the Global Coalition Against DAESH and the US Department of Defense whereby they not only did not deny the existence of the deal, but, on the contrary, expressed their “respect” for it.

This is hardly the first deal of its kind done with IS to try to preserve life and property in various cities. Such deals have occurred in Iraq, too, with al-Hashd al-Shabi, the Iranian-dominated conglomeration of Shi’i militias that has spearheaded much of the anti-IS campaign in that country. The especial bitterness for Turkey about this deal is that Ankara is already furious that the U.S. decided it was comfortable with an anti-IS campaign that had as one of its by-products the creation of a statelet on Turkey’s border run by a group Turkey considers an existential menace. Now it transpires Turkey was expected to not only accept the displacement of one terrorist group with another directly on its doorstep, but was expected—despite hosting three million refugees and struggling with an inflamed sectarian situation, amply exploited by IS already to destabilize Turkey—to absorb some of the displaced terrorists within its territory as well.

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UPDATE: An audio leak from the SDF/PKK mediator shows the operative being prepared to allow IS jihadists to go anywhere they want, whether that is the remaining IS-held areas, parts of western Syria, or beyond:

It is possible, regarding those [IS fighters remaining] in Raqqa, that they can leave in the form of small groups … [and] they will be sent wherever they want. It will not be like in Tabqa and Minbij, where people knew about [the deals for IS’s withdrawal] … They will leave secretly; no-one knows. If they like, they can be sent to their own organization. We don’t have any problem, as long as it is in small groups. If they want to turn themselves in, this is also possible. If they want to leave and go to the areas of Hama or the areas of—I mean, any area they want.

This leak was almost certainly engineered by Turkish intelligence; it is very similar to the methods of political warfare adopted in recent weeks against another terrorist group, namely Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

UPDATE 2: The SDF/PKK reached a ceasefire agreement with the Islamic State in “Wilayat al-Baraka” on 27 November 2017. The document, translated by Aymenn al-Tamimi, lasts between 28 November and 28 December and guarantees “secure geographic boundaries for the two sides”.

In military terms, the SDF will provide “no obstruction” for IS jihadists in “carrying out of military operations against parties outside the agreement”—namely the Syrian rebellion and the pro-Asad coalition—and will not conduct any of their own operations against IS, even with aircraft or drones. IS will “cease military operations” against the SDF, including “security operations”. The SDF and IS have established “a hotline between them” to resolve any “unintended problems of opening fire on the frontlines”.

Politically, the SDF has agreed not to hand over IS prisoners to any other party and not to obstruct the arrival of locals or foreign fighters to areas controlled by IS. The two sides also agreed to resolve any problems that arise because of local commanders at frontlines and crossings directly.

The economic conditions of the deal stipulate open crossings between the areas IS holds and “not blocking any product from entering and leaving by each of the two sides.” The SDF has committed to “preserving the oil fields that remain under Islamic State authority” and guaranteeing the security of IS jihadists who want to leave the remnants of the “caliphate” for medical treatment.

Though there has been some dispute about the authenticity of this document, al-Tamimi notes that “Abu Emad al-Nayrabi, a pro-Islamic State media activist, affirms that there is indeed a ceasefire agreement for a month”, and a resident of Ashara in the Deir Ezzor province “also affirmed the existence of a ceasefire agreement.”


Originally published at The Henry Jackson Society