Damascus: “Honestly speaking, we are unhappy and consider it incorrect,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi, speaking of a highly controversial deal hammered out during the last week of August between Hezbollah and Daesh.
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The agreement calls for the relocation of 300 Daesh fighters and an equal number of their family members from Lebanon to the Syrian city of Al Bukamal, located on the banks of the Euphrates River, not far from the Syrian-Iraqi border. Al Abadi feels that this puts Iraq in serious jeopardy, torpedoing all attempts by his government to eradicate Daesh from Iraqi towns and cities. “Transferring terrorists from Qalamoun to the Iraqi-Syrian border is an insult to the Iraqi people,” he added. “There must be no chance for Daesh to breathe.”
The agreement was reached after Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army carried out a series of back-to-back military operations, eradicating pockets within Lebanon that have been held by Daesh since 2014.
Hezbollah claims that four of the 17 buses have safely reached Al Bukamal, while the rest remain stranded in the Syrian Desert, unable to proceed after the US Army bombed their route last week. Several fighters have reportedly slipped out of the buses, disappearing into the vast dessert or smuggling their way into Iraq.
According to citizen journalist Omar Abu Layla of Deir Al Zor, the escaping Daesh fighters were allowed to disembark from the Hezbollah-protected buses and meet up with comrades who transported them to the Iraqi towns of Rawah and Aanah, on the northern bank of the Euphrates. “Hundreds of Daesh fighters from Syria showed up in Rawah on Friday, taking up residency in empty or abandoned homes. All of them were apparently from the convoy.”
Senior US State Department adviser Scott Lasensky told Gulf News: “The American intervention to halt the convoy was a stark reminder that the anti-Daesh international coalition remains robust and committed. Still, the big unknown remains what kind of political structure will fill in the vacuum as ISIS [Daesh] continues to retreat from territory it controls, a question that is taking on particular urgency as the fight for Al Raqqa could prove decisive in the days and weeks ahead.”
Those accusations have triggered a violent backlash against Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, where many are complaining that the country already has enough terrorists on its plate and is certainly in no need of receiving an additional 600 from Lebanon.
Dubai-based Syrian businessmen Firas Tlass described the deal as a “lumpish show,” claiming that 113 members of Daesh have actually defected and joined the Syrian Army. Members of the anti-Hezbollah camp in Beirut are also furious that the Daesh fighters were allowed to leave Lebanon with no trial or accountability and were actually being fed and protected on their air-conditioned buses. Many university students wrote on their Facebook pages: “Shame on our Nation.”
The Lebanese were all the more furious when it was revealed that the nine soldiers kidnapped by Daesh back in 2014 were all found dead and that Hezbollah had requested protection of the “women and children” on board the buses, after the US strike destroyed their highway to Al Bukamal.
Last Saturday Hezbollah even issued a statement, expressing “fears” for the families of the fighters, calling for international intervention to prevent a “terrible massacre” by the Americans. If civilians die, only the US would be to blame, it added.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry also condemned the US attack, saying that it endangered the lives of pregnant women on board because of the “lack of access to food and water.”
Making things worse, it was quickly revealed that the main trigger for allowing 600 Daesh fighters freely out of Lebanon was to receive the corpse of an Iranian soldier from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who was taken prisoner and then quickly beheaded last August. The soldier’s remains were handed over to Hezbollah, who in turn, returned them to Tehran.
Rather than admit that the deal was flawed and caused unnecessary criticism and anger, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah came out on August 31 saying that he had personally travelled to Damascus to negotiate the deal with President Bashar Al Assad.
Nicholas Blanford, the veteran Beirut-based author of “Warriors of God” a seminal book about Hezbollah, thinks that the deals repercussions “will blow over and it will be back to business as usual.”
Speaking to Gulf News, he said: “There’s a lot of anger among the Hezbollah support base who have been on the receiving end of Daesh rockets and car bombs. There was a feeling that the Daesh fighters should all have been killed or captured and brought to justice. The sight of the Daesh folks disappearing into Syria in air-conditioned buses was galling.” He added that according to senior Lebanese officers, the army should have been allowed to finish off the remaining fighters who were holed up in a 20 square kilometre area along the border.
Blanford added: “Hezbollah bases much of its rationale for maintaining weapons on the fact that only the party has the strength, skills, doctrine, and weaponry to defend Lebanon against Israel and other external threats. The sight of the army waging a swift and well-planned attack against ISIS [Daesh] could partially undermine Hezbollah’s rationale, at least in public perception if not reality.”