Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday he traveled to Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to request the evacuation of Islamic State fighters from their enclave on the Syria-Lebanon border.
The evacuation convoy left the border area late on Monday to take about 600 IS fighters and family members to the territory the group controls in eastern Syria, but it was blocked from entering IS areas on Wednesday by US- led air strikes.
Islamic State would have handed over one Hezbollah captive and the bodies of an estimated 8 Hezbollah forces and one Iranian fighter killed in battles across Syria.
On Monday, hundreds of ISIS fighters were allowed to board buses in the Qalamoun mountains near Syria’s border with Lebanon, where they had been defending a besieged enclave, and drive to eastern Syria near Deir al-Zor. The Iraqi government condemned the move as “unacceptable” and threatening Iraq, because the ISIS fighters will now be in the Euphrates Valley and can easily move to ISIS-controlled areas near al-Qaim in Iraq’s Anbar province.
“This is further evidence of why coalition military action to defeat ISIS in Syria is necessary,” the coalition statement said. “The coalition is monitoring the movement of these fighters in real-time. In according with the law of armed conflict, the coalition will take action against ISIS whenever and wherever we are able to.”
Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the coalition, in separate comments reported by The New York Times, said that “those would be absolutely lucrative targets,” a thinly veiled threat that the ISIS fighters would be targeted by air strikes. The fighters were transported on buses with their families, which means any strike would take that into account. The coalition said that it “has not struck the convoy” itself.
Most important, the air strikes and statements illustrate the continuing distrust between the coalition and pro-Assad regime forces, including Hezbollah. The US views the Lebanese group as a terrorist organization and President Donald Trump has condemned Hezbollah as a menace. The decision by the Syrian regime to seemingly dump ISIS fighters on the doorstep of Iraq so they become the “problem” of someone else will likely create distrust between Baghdad and Damascus as Iraqi and Syrian forces return to border areas that ISIS has held for three years.
The decision to strike the road also may heighten tensions with the Syrian regime, since the US has tended to refrain from air strikes in that area west of the Euphrates due to its “de-confliction” with the Syrian regime and Russia so that different air forces that operate in Syria do not come into contact. By showing resolve to prevent the ISIS fighters from nearing Iraq, the US has stood by its Iraqi government partners who indicated the transfer of the fighters was a threat.