ARLINGTON, Va. — Tour buses carrying ISIS fighters from the Lebanon-Syria border to the Iraqi border in Syria have not come under fire from coalition forces, the general in charge of U.S. operations said today, and have turned back toward territory controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Assad and Hezbollah forged a deal with the Islamic State under which more than 300 ISIS terrorists, accompanied by family members, received safe passage to Deir ez-Zor province southeast of Raqqa. The final destination was Al-Bukamal — a mere 13-minute drive from the Iraq border crossing. The deal angered Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
In return for their bus rides, ISIS pointed to the burial location of several Lebanese soldiers kidnapped by the terror group in 2014.
A few weeks ago, the Assad regime deployed buses to the Lebanon border to safely shuttle al-Qaeda jihadists to northwest Syria.
Lt. Gen. Steven Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters via video link from Baghdad today that the coalition “decided to go look for these buses” carrying the ISIS terrorists “and we found them.”
“And let me make it clear, we have not struck this convoy at all. No women and children have been harmed on this convoy, although I’d very much like to get at the ISIS fighters on that convoy. We’ve resisted that,” he said. “What we have done is we’ve seen the Syrian regime bring these ISIS fighters, with their machine guns, which they posted on social media — pictures of masked terrorists on Greyhound-like buses with their machine guns in their laps. And you can check it on social media and see it for yourself. So we didn’t make a deal with ISIS, and we’re going to pursue ISIS wherever we find them.”
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Townsend said the buses stopped near Al-Bukamal “and they waited to link up with ISIS.”
“And so we watched, and when ISIS came out to link up with them, we started striking ISIS. And again, we haven’t struck the convoy, but we have struck every ISIS fighter and/or vehicle that has tried to approach that convoy, and will continue to do that,” he vowed.
The general noted that “the Syrian regime appears to be quite happy to deliver them right to Al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border.”
“I know the government of Iraq doesn’t appreciate that much. And we don’t appreciate it. And we weren’t a party to the deal,” he stressed. “So, what’s become of the buses there? They actually started moving back towards the interior of Syria, and so we’re just letting them go. If they try to get to the edge of ISIS territory and link up with ISIS there, we’ll work hard to disrupt that.”
Al-Abadi announced today, “Our brave Armed Forces have liberated Tal Afar and the Iraqi flag is once again flying high in Nineveh province.”
Townsend said internal squabbles within ISIS hastened their fall in Tal Afar. “There was strife between the Iraqi — between local ISIS fighters and foreign ISIS fighters. And we saw that playing out,” he said. “…Our initial battle damage assessment is over a thousand enemy fighters killed or captured already, probably 500 to 700 of them in the neighborhood of Tal Afar City itself.”
“And then those remaining fighters withdrew from Tal Afar City to the north and they withdrew some 10 or 20 kilometers to some pretty rough country and some small villages to the north of Tal Afar. And in that process, we think we’ve killed somewhere between 300 and 500,” he added. “So somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 enemy fighters we think that we’ve killed. The Kurdish Peshmerga have estimated they’ve killed somewhere between 130 and 170 fighters trying to flee through — northward and northwest through the Kurdish defensive lines.”
“…I think there are probably some still hiding in the very rough country to the north of Tal Afar, but not in large numbers, would be my guess. And I think we’ve accounted for a lot of them.”
Townsend said the Syrian Democratic Forces keep “fighting well above the weight class” in the battle for Raqqa. “It doesn’t really matter what that force is comprised of, you know, the ethnic background, the religious background,” he said of the force composed of male and female commanders, consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis and other ethnic minorities. “What we see is we see people fleeing towards our Syrian partners every day. They’re fleeing from ISIS towards our Syrian partners. They’re fleeing from the Syrian regime towards our Syrian partners, because they know that there’s safety there.”
Asked about the priority currently placed on capturing ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Townsend replied that he’d “be happy to capture Baghdadi.”
“I don’t know who wouldn’t. I think I’d be just as equally satisfied just killing him. And if he’s alive out there somewhere, we’re looking for him every day. I don’t think he’s dead. We’re looking for him every day. When we find him, I think we’ll probably just try to kill him first, probably not worth all the trouble to try to capture him. That’s my own personal thought on it,” he said.
“Do I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive. There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive. Where is he? I don’t have a clue. He could be anywhere in the world for all I know.”
The general added that he thinks the ISIS leader is “somewhere in Iraq and Syria.. probably somewhere in the Middle Euphrates River Valley,” where the Pentagon expects “the last stand of ISIS will be.”
“That’s where they believe their last sanctuary is. So I think he’s probably somewhere down there,” Townsend said. “That’s just an educated guess made after, you know, doing this for a year and scratching off a whole — he’s not in Mosul, he’s not in Tal Afar, I don’t think he’s in Raqqa anymore. So just kind of reducing the list of possible places where he could be, I kind of conclude he’s in the MERV somewhere.”