Newsweek 12 December 2017
News of a covert agreement between the Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS was first leaked last month after a BBC News investigation. The U.S.-led coalition denied being a party to any agreements, telling Newsweek it does not “make deals with terrorists,” but acknowledging that its partner had let convoys depart the city allegedly on humanitarian grounds. The BBC investigation, citing an unnamed “Western officer” who claimed he or she was present during the discussions, said 250 ISIS fighters left along with 3,500 family members, some of whom may have fled the country into neighbouring Turkey.
Silo, who has not given any reason for his defection, said that his forces blocked all travel to Raqqa for three days in October, claiming ongoing clashes made movement too dangerous. In reality, he said, they were covering up the exit of thousands of ISIS fighters and hundreds of their family members.
“It was all theatre,” Silo told Reuters.
“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir Ezzor,” he added.
At the time, the eastern Syrian city was the venue for a vicious battle between ISIS and another major foe—the Syrian military. Syria’s armed forces and allied militias, including Iran-backed Shiite Muslim fighters, have been tackling a widespread uprising by insurgents—who received Western, Turkish and Arab Gulf support—and jihadis since 2011. In 2014, the Russian military intervened at Assad’s request, giving Syrian troops and their partners the momentum to retake most of the country.
As the U.S. dropped support for rebels and focused on its Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces trying to take Raqqa, the Syrian military swept across the country toward Deir Ezzor, where a detachment of Syrian soldiers had been trapped behind ISIS lines for three years. Syrian troops, with Russian and Iranian support, broke the siege in early September and ultimately retook the entire city, the last major population centre under ISIS control, in early November.
Russia has long accused the U.S. of being ineffective against and even supportive of ISIS and other jihadi groups in Syria. The U.S. has fiercely denied these claims and has charged Russia and its allies with committing human rights abuses in their campaign to defeat both ISIS and rebel groups across the war-torn country.
With ISIS having been defeated almost entirely in Iraq and Syria, both the U.S. and Russia-backed campaigns have begun closing in on what’s left of its once-expansive, self-styled caliphate. The Syrian government has managed to secure the majority of the territory it previously lost, but it still faces swaths of Kurdish control in the north and small pockets of rebel control in the northwest and southwest. In recent months, Russia has taken the lead in overseeing negotiations between Assad, the Kurds and the rebels.