The convoy of Islamic State militant group (ISIS) fighters that was stranded in the Syrian desert for two weeks has reached its final destination in eastern Syria after the U.S.-led coalition allowed it free passage in spite of a pledge to prevent it doing so, a Syrian monitoring group said on Wednesday.
Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah and the Syrian regime helped to broker the August 28 deal that saw around 300 ISIS fighters and 300 family members and civilians transported in return for the bodies of Lebanese soldiers captured in 2014 and killed by the jihadist group. The agreement ended ISIS’s presence on the Lebanese border after three years in the Bekaa Valley.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring group with an extensive network of sources in Syria, said the convoy reached ISIS-held territory in Deir Ezzor province "after the coalition decision to stop their surveillance on the convoy."
The coalition did not respond to a Newsweek request for comment, but it told AFP news agency that it had pulled its drones at the request of Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing Syrian regime and Russian forces to move through the area.
"To ensure safe deconfliction of efforts to defeat ISIS, coalition surveillance aircraft departed the adjacent airspace at the request of Russian officials during their assault on Deir Ezzor,” it said.
Following the agreement, the coalition had carried out airstrikes on the route to the Deir Ezzor town of Albukamal to prevent the convoy’s passage, destroying bridges and leaving large craters that stranded it in central Syria. Its drones were monitoring the convoy, and striking any jihadists who moved too far from the vehicles. The coalition did not strike the convoy directly because it was carrying women and children.
But it has now arrived in eastern Syria unharmed and unthreatened. Seventeen buses of jihadists were originally part of the deal, but it remains unclear if all had reached their intended destination.
The buses traveled on a route held by the Syrian regime, between the town of al-Sukna and Deir Ezzor, and were escorted by Hezbollah. In the process of the convoy’s journey, a Hezbollah prisoner captured by ISIS was swapped, a commander in the Syrian-Hezbollah alliance told Reuters.
The deal for the evacuation of ISIS fighters from the Lebanese-Syrian borders after clashes with the Lebanese military angered Iraq, which said Lebanon and Syria were shifting the problem to their territory.
Both Hezbollah and its backer Iran have been aiding the Assad regime with ground forces and advisers to help recapture areas seized by jihadists and more moderate rebels opposed to the Syrian president’s rule in what has now become a six-year-long civil war.
Hezbollah’s secretive leader Hassan Nasrallah defended the deal with the jihadists that have committed attacks across the Middle East, including bomb blasts in Beirut against the Shiite community. "We came and took responsibility by going to negotiations," he said in a speech last month. "Hezbollah's answer was categorical, that is, any solution, whether it be partial or whole, must first include the fate of the soldiers."