By the summer of 2017, the city of Raqqa in eastern Syria was the last remaining stronghold of ISIL in the Middle East. The U.S. backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) launched a major attack on the city beginning in June. On October 17, 2017, these forces announced the fall of the city and the utter defeat of ISIL. The BBC, however, had reporters on the ground, who reported a shocking twist to the story of the city’s fall. Members of the attacking forces had cut a deal to allow hundreds -perhaps thousands- of fighters to escape from the city. In a video titled, “Fall of Raqqa: The secret deal,” the BBC reporters traced the convoy’s path as far as Turkey, where they interviewed smugglers who took ISIL members across the border. Amongst the people who escaped were many foreign fighters, who threaten their own country’s security when they return. France, in particular, seems to be a target.
There is no way that such a large force could have moved from such a strategically important site without U.S. and Russian intelligence services being aware. According to the BBC -which had video and interviews to document the event- an immense convoy of buses, trucks and vehicles took the fighters and their families out of Raqqa. Doubtless this all took place under the watchful gaze of U.S. drones. Yet there were no air strikes on the convoy, which can only imply U.S. and Russian compliance with the deal. The entire event is a tragedy, which will threaten Western security for years to come. What is most surprising that all parties seem to have believed that they could keep the truth secret. I recommend viewing the BBC video itself -which BBC news published to Youtube on November 14, 2017- to view their account of these events. You can also learn more from this article by Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati (13 November 2017), “Raqqa’s dirty secret,” BBC News website. The storyboard has text, images and video. As is so often the case, the BBC has had the best coverage on the ground.
There are some details in the driver’s stories that are worth noting. They said that they were told that the trip would take six hours, but it took three days. Some of the ISIL fighters wore suicide vests. So did some of the ISIL fighters’ wives and children. And according to the drivers, they still hadn’t been paid when the BBC interviewed them. If you want people to keep a secret, pay them what you’ve promised. According to the drivers, 4,000 people left in that convoy. And according to one of the drivers, the fighters brought so much ammunition with them that the weight broke their truck’s axle. Finally, according to Sommerville and Dalati’s report, the drivers said that the evacuees included “. . . a huge number of foreigners. France, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi, China, Tunisia, Egypt…”
In August Lebanon allowed hundreds of ISIS fighters to leave their border positions after a combined operation with the Syrian army to destroy their enclave. At the time, U.S. officials angrily denounced this decision, and said that they would never permit this to happen. Indeed, according to an article by Rod Nordland in the New York Times, the U.S. air force launched a series of strikes that -for a time- blocked the road that the militants sought to take. While those fighters ultimately escaped, what’s most surprising about this story is the dissonance between the U.S. military’s rhetoric and action in that case, and its silence and passivity in Raqqa. Sommerville and Dalati said that a U.S. fighter jets approached the convoy that left Raqqa, dropped flares to light up the area, and then flew away.