American military officials said that coalition warplanes would make sure that did not happen.
“They’re on the move, they’re trying a different route, we’re watching all the way through,” the American coalition spokesman, Col. Ryan Dillon, said Thursday, by telephone from Baghdad.
Colonel Dillon said the coalition flew airstrikes Wednesday afternoon and Wednesday night against other Islamic State units that had tried to reach the convoy from inside Deir al-Zour. “If ISIS wants to continue to send known ISIS fighters and vehicles toward this convoy, we will continue to fight them,” he said.
While American soldiers and their Syrian allies are not actively fighting on the ground in Deir al-Zour, coalition airstrikes against ISIS take place daily there, and the area is expected to be the next major battlefield after the Islamic State capital of Raqqa is fully subdued.
So far the coalition has not bombed the convoy itself because it is carrying civilians, but it has not ruled out doing so if it can without harming them. On Wednesday, coalition airstrikes cratered the highway in front of the convoy and destroyed a bridge in the town of Humaimah in southeastern Homs Province, close to the Deir al-Zour provincial border, according to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London. This prevented it from moving ahead
On Monday morning, the Islamic State fighters had agreed to pull out of a 27-square-mile enclave they held on the border between Lebanon and Syria, near the Lebanese town of Arsal, in a deal they cut with both governments, and with Hezbollah militiamen from Lebanon who are fighting alongside the Syrians. Under the deal, Lebanon received the remains of nine soldiers taken prisoner by ISIS in 2014; the ISIS fighters received free passage to Deir al-Zour, 300 miles to the east.
From the beginning, the convoy encountered problems. Instead of heading due east, it turned north and to the city of Homs. There it transferred to buses and ambulances reportedly sent by the Islamic State and then headed east Tuesday morning. For some reason — possibly concern about airstrikes — what would normally be a 10-hour trip took most of the next two days.
The buses were labeled with signs in their windshields, B-1 through B-17. In bus B-9 a laughing militant could clearly be seen with an AK-47. One bus carried the name of a tour company, Happy Journeys. Another was emblazoned with the improbable company name “NOPLAN.”
Throughout, Islamic State media outlets have been unusually silent about the deal to give up Arsal, the last significant ISIS enclave on the Lebanese border. For the militants, who normally pledge to fight to the death, the optics were humiliating. Video posted online showed busloads of militants, many of them hurriedly covering their faces with their kefeiyah scarves, driving through lines of Hezbollah and Lebanese army fighters who waved flags and laughed at them.
Rita Katz, head of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors ISIS and other extremists online, said that ISIS supporters refused to believe the Islamic State had made the deal to evacuate. “Some users on a pro-ISIS chat group called reports of the event ‘Fake news,’ asking, ‘Since when is news from Hezbollah authentic?’” she said. “One user wrote, ‘No need to respond to these ridiculous claims, it is known to everyone that Islamic State fighters ride on VBIED’S, not green buses.’” The reference was to vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs
Al Akhbar, a newspaper in Lebanon that generally supports Hezbollah, reported that Islamic State forces in eastern Syria were upset with the convoy’s occupants for abandoning their border enclave. They did so after an apparently coordinated weeklong offensive against them by the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, which had them surrounded.
Once the convoy was blocked in Humaimah on Wednesday, it apparently had to negotiate permission from the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah allies to try another route. Hezbollah then demanded that the ISIS militants turn over the body of an Iranian fighter whom they had killed, the Reuters news agency reported, quoting the Syrian military source. It was not clear if that was a new deal, or part of the original deal on Sunday.
In any case, the convoy turned back on Thursday, looping west and north to try to reach Deir al-Zour through Sukhna. Further complicating matters for the convoy, the Syrian Army announced Wednesday that it had started a major offensive into Deir al-Zour in the general area of Sukhna.
The deal to relocate the ISIS fighters angered not only the coalition, but also Iraqi authorities, since their original intended destination had been the town of Abu Kamal, close to the Iraq border in Deir al-Zour province. Normally, Iraq has friendly relations with Syria and especially Hezbollah, a Shiite militia with close ties to Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias.
Hezbollah is a paramilitary political party based in Lebanon, whose pro-Iranian militants are actively fighting in Syria alongside the Bashar al-Assad regime. Its normally reclusive leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has made three public statements this week to defend the ISIS convoy deal.
“We transported those defeated militants from one front we fight in to another front we also fight in,” he said, referring to Hezbollah forces fighting in the Deir al-Zour area. “Those who have been transferred are not large in numbers; 310 defeated, broken fighters will not change anything in the equation of the battle in Deir al-Zour province, which is said to have tens of thousands of fighters.”