Terrorist convoy halted in desert raises big question – what to do with these murderous militants once you have cornered them?
Angus McDowall in Beirut
The US-led coalition in Syria yesterday said it would keep blocking a convoy of evacuated Isil militants in the Syrian desert from reaching Isil-held territory on the Iraq border.
The hundreds of fighters recently surrendered an enclave on Syria’s border with Lebanon. They agreed with Hezbollah and the Syrian government that they would leave with their families and head eastwards.
But the US-led coalition says it and Iraq were not part of the deal – and last Tuesday bombed the road ahead of the convoy. The buses are now stranded in an area of desert under Syrian government control
The stand-off in the desert is continuing while Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Syrian army seek a new route for the convoy of terrorists – and their families – bound for the jihadi stronghold in eastern Syria.
The convoy of 17 buses carrying about 300 terrorists described as “lightly armed” and 300 civilians has been stuck in Syria’s eastern desert since last Tuesday, with a US-led coalition using air strikes to close the road and stop it from retreating further.
The fighters travelling on the buses surrendered their enclave straddling Syria’s border with Lebanon last Monday in a truce deal that allowed them to join their fellow sectarian killers on the other side of the country.
This angered both the US-led coalition (which does not want more battle-hardened militants in an area where it is operating) and Iraq (which sees them as a threat because the convoy’s proposed destination of Al-Bukamal is close to its own border).
The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Russia and Iran-backed militias including Hezbollah, is fighting Isil but also pushing it eastwards across the desert.
Yesterday, Hezbollah said in a statement that it and the Syrian army had fulfilled their obligations by safely transporting the convoy out of Syrian government territory. However, it said US warplanes were stopping the convoy from moving towards its destination in Isil-held territory and were also preventing any aid reaching the buses, which had old people, casualties and pregnant women aboard.
Six buses from the convoy were still in Syrian government territory and in the care of Hezbollah and the Syrian government, the statement said.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite group allied to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, called on the international community to intervene to prevent what it called a “massacre” of the people stuck on the buses in the desert. Isil fighters are Sunni Muslims who consider Shia to be apostates – and thus deserving of murder.
The coalition says it has struck Isil fighters in vehicles moving towards the convoy but will not strike any civilian vehicles. It said last Friday that the convoy was still in government-held territory.
A Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said dozens of the Isil fighters had left the stranded convoy in an attempt to reach Isil-held Deir al-Zor province by themselves.
The commander in the pro-Assad military alliance denied news reports that said a hundred of the jihadists had already reached Isil territory there.
However, yesterday evening Syrian opposition activists said that “dozens” of Isil members and their families had already slipped away and had crossed into areas controlled by the extremists.
The coalition has sworn to continue monitoring the convoy and disrupting any effort it makes to cross into jihadist territory – but it will not bomb it directly, because it contains civilians.
It has asked Russia to tell the Syrian government that it will not allow the convoy to move further east towards the Iraqi border, according to a statement issued late last Friday.
Last Wednesday, the coalition said its jets had cratered a road and destroyed a bridge to stop the convoy progressing, and had bombed some of the jihadists’ comrades coming the other way to meet it.
Hezbollah and the Syrian army last Thursday changed the route of the convoy from Humeima, a hamlet deep in the southeast desert, to a location further north, but coalition jets again struck near that route, the commander said.
“It was considered a threat, meaning there was no passage that way,” the commander said. Last Friday, coalition jets ran mock air raids over the convoy, the commander added.
“It caused panic among the Daeshis. The militants are scared the convoy will be bombarded as soon as it enters Deir al-Zor,” the commander said, using a plural form of the Arabic acronym for Isil to refer to its fighters.