Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A new game of nations

A US deal to let thousands of Islamic State group terrorists flee the city of Raqqa may shed light on broader counter-terrorism strategies, writes Salah Nasrawi


A new game of nations
A new game of nations

In combat, shoot to kill is one of the standard rules of engagement armies teach their soldiers in order to win wars swiftly and at a lower cost. The US army is no exception, and for US war strategists who have taken part in seemingly endless conflicts it has just been common sense.

But something must have gone wrong in the US-led war against terrorism in Iraq and Syria, as the notion of shoot to kill was not on display by US soldiers when they were at an advantage last week in taking down thousands of terrorists.

The incident has raised eyebrows. Has the United States allowed thousands of Islamic State (IS) fighters secretly to leave besieged cities with weapons and ammunition intact as the terrorist group has been suffering its last gasp in Iraq and Syria?

This is the question the world wants Washington to answer following reports last week that the US-led coalition had been party to a deal that allowed thousands of IS fighters to leave the besieged Syrian city of Raqqa.

News of the agreement, which first broke on the BBC on 13 November, sent shock waves throughout the Middle East as the world was preparing to see an end to the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.

It immediately triggered memories of US intelligence networks’ collaboration with jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980s and sparked speculation about plans to put the terrorist organisation on life support after a series of defeats in the two countries.

In an investigative report the BBC said the US-led coalition had allowed IS militants and foreign fighters to leave Raqqa with their families in a convoy. Ten trucks loaded with weapons and ammunition were also allowed to leave the city, the de facto capital of the IS self-declared caliphate.

According to the BBC, the US forces not only knew about the deal, but they also kept a close watch on the convoy which was carrying some 4,400 terrorists and their family members as it drove through the desert towards the Iraqi border.

The report has unleashed criticisms from the warring parties in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Ali Yildirim described the deal as “siding with a terrorist organisation,” adding that the freed terrorists would return to kill innocent people.

“This work is shocking,” Yildirim said.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence also accused the US of ignoring its warnings about the refusal of US warplanes to carry out air strikes against IS terrorist convoys retreating from liberated Syrian towns. 

The disclosure has also raised concerns among counter-terrorism experts who fear that such events will pose new challenges to international efforts to combat terrorism.

US officials, however, remain in denial about the risky deal, which they said was organised by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and was a bid to reduce civilian casualties.

“The central priority here was the protection of civilian lives, and the arrangement was reached by our partners and their local affiliates,” Pentagon Spokesman Eric Pahon told the Turkish Anadolu News Agency.

The statement contradicts promises made by the most senior US government official in the fight against IS, Brett McGurk, who had vowed that all foreign IS fighters who had come to fight with IS would die in the battles to drive them out of Iraq and Syria.

But the shocking revelation was not without precedents. Hundreds of terrorists were allowed to go during the battle to retake Mosul and other cities in Iraq last summer. Kurdish Peshmergas forces said they had arrested some of the escapees who were trying to make their way to Syria and Turkey.

In June 2016, some 1,000 militants, including senior IS leaders and some foreign fighters and their families, succeeded in making their way out of the besieged Iraqi city of Fallujah, escaping the aerial bombardment of their convoys by the US-led coalition.

The fiasco unfolded three days after Fallujah had been declared to be fully liberated. It raised serious questions of how US reconnaissance planes and satellites and other spying devices working around the clock in Iraq could have failed to observe such a large convoy assembling to escape from the city.

These and other incidents have triggered speculation about planned escape corridors for IS militants, allowing them to rebuild their forces or make their way to other countries.

The Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian media have also seen reports about helicopters operating under the US-led coalition transferring IS members after their defeat on battlefields in Iraq and Syria.

In some cases video footages have showed of US helicopters apparently airdropping American-supplied arms to IS positions.

While US officials have always denied such reports, they have acknowledged leaks of US arms to multiple armed groups committing atrocities in Iraq, including IS.

But the United States is not alone in such controversial deals. On 28 August, approximately 300 IS fighters and an equal number of family members were transferred from the Lebanon-Syria border to new locations in IS-controlled territories under a deal with the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah.

Turkey has been another case in point. Its hundreds of kilometres long border with Syria has acted as a funnel to transport fighters and supplies to and from terrorist-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria.

Iran has not been spared from the figure-pointing in such ghost wars. Earlier this month, documents belonging to former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and released by the CIA testified to relations between the Al-Qaeda terror group and Iran.

The documents, seized in the 2011 raid that killed Bin Laden and long withheld by the former Obama administration in the US, appeared to confirm what has long been considered to be an “open secret”.

Other countries that are members of the international coalition to fight IS, or their citizens, have been known to foster and finance radicalism or terrorism.

Such revelations provide a closer look at the national strategies of the various stakeholders and help to see how international counter-terrorism is being undermined by dishonesty, hypocrisy and the contradictions of the key players.

They bring back memories of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s when Washington in cooperation with its allies provided logistical support and managed the training, equipping and paying and sending into battle of jihadists, including Al-Qaeda members, who later turned against the United States.

Without such flirtations, fostering of relationships and financing of the radicals, these terror groups could not have flourished, expanded and defied international counter-terrorism efforts in the way that they have.

Today’s players in the war against terrorism may hope that the escape of the IS fighters will keep their rivals trapped in a “quagmire”, but as the Afghan war proved this could have devastating consequences not only for Iraq and Syria but also for the world as a whole.

To be sure, the “temporary marriage” between the United States and some of its allies and the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in part gave rise to terror groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, giving the terrorists a free pass to create even more monstrous organisations.

This immoral policy of double-dealing and using the militants in power politics should be stopped because it will only benefit terrorists who will regroup to continue their unholy mission of wrecking the wider world.

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