BEIRUT, Aug 29, (Agencies): Buses carrying hundreds of Islamic State (IS) militants and their families arrived in eastern Syria on Tuesday following a negotiated evacuation from the Lebanon-Syria border, where the US-backed Lebanese army deployed for the first time in years.
The evacuation agreement, the first such publicized deal concluded with the extremist group, angered many Iraqis, who accused Syria and Hezbollah of dumping the militants on the Iraqi border rather than eradicating them.
Some 600 militants were allowed to leave as part of a deal, negotiated by Hezbollah, in exchange for identifying the location of the remains of Lebanese soldiers captured by IS in 2014 and later killed. The deal also provoked controversy in Lebanon, as some have voiced opposition to negotiations with the militants.
“Any deals or understandings between the warring parties inside Syria or in the region must take into consideration the security of Iraq and not to lead to anything that poses any threat to our national security,” the Iraqi government spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Al-Hadithi said the Iraqi government “will firmly face any threat to Iraqi territories.”
Shiite-majority Iraq has been largely supportive of Syria and the Iran-backed Hezbollah in their battle against IS, a Sunni extremist group and shared enemy, but many Iraqis expressed anger on social media.
“Who’s going to pay for the delivery sent by Hassan Nasrallah to us?” wrote well-known writer Saleh al-Hamdani on his Facebook page, referring to Hezbollah’s leader. “Will (state-sanctioned militias) or the Federal Police or Counter Terrorism Forces pay for it?”
Baghdad-based analyst Hisham al-Hashimi wrote on Facebook that Iraq’s “selfish ally preferred to throw DAESH danger from Lebanon to Iraq, while Iraqis demolished the second-largest city (Mosul) in order not to enable DAESH militants to flee (to Syria) and damage the neighbor.”
DAESH is the Arabic acronym for IS.
The Lebanese government and Hezbollah have both defended the deal that allowed IS safe passage to the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, an IS stronghold, saying it was the only way Lebanon could uncover the fate of its captured soldiers and recover their remains.
But many in Lebanon were opposed to the deal, which they said allowed the killers of Lebanese soldiers to get off scot-free.
“Shame on a nation whose soldiers return in coffins, while the criminals leave in air-conditioned buses,” many posted on social media.
The departure of IS marked the end of a militant presence along the Syrian-Lebanese border dating back to the early days of the Syrian uprising. The Lebanese army was able to assume full control of the border.
Syrian state-run news agency SANA said the buses carrying the militants arrived Tuesday to a handover point in the town of Hamimiyah in the eastern Deir el-Zour province. They are expected to continue from there to the town of Boukamal, near the Iraqi border.
Islamic State fighters and their families who had been inside an IS enclave on the Lebanon-Syria border reached an exchange point in eastern Syria on Tuesday from where they will head to IS-held territory, a Hezbollah military media unit said.
The transfer under Syrian military escort was agreed under a ceasefire deal. The convoy of buses and ambulances left the border region on Monday after a ceasefire took effect on Sunday.
The deal ended a week-long offensive with the Lebanese army on one front and Hezbollah with the Syrian army on the other against Islamic State’s mountainous enclave straddling the Lebanon-Syria border.
For the first time in years, Lebanon now controls all of its border with Syria. Its southern border with Israel is patrolled by UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Having ousted Islamic State, the Lebanese army on Tuesday deployed across the area, planting its flag near the border, footage on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV showed.
A security source said there was an unknown number of mines left behind in the region, which might be difficult to remove as the army does not have maps of their location.
Mine-clearing work will start soon with the aim of letting people return to work in the mountainous area which includes fields and some quarries, the source said.
The dust-covered soldiers, armoured vehicles and tents may not look very official, but they mark the first time Lebanese troops have deployed in this sliver of land along the Syrian border.
After a week-long campaign against the Islamic State group, Lebanese troops have established an unprecedented presence in the northeastern area of Jurud Ras Baalbek, a belt of territory that has been a longstanding source of contention with Syria.
An evacuation deal led to the jihadists’ withdrawal into eastern Syria on Monday, as the Lebanese army organised a press tour of the area.
Dozens of Lebanese troops are manning newly erected outposts on a string of barren hilltops near Syrian territory.
“Before DAESH was here, there was no Lebanese army presence,” a member of the special forces’ airborne division told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
“When we advanced, we pulled out the DAESH flag and stuck in a Lebanese flag for the first time,” the soldier said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lebanon and Syria share a 330 km (205 mile) border, with no official demarcation at several points, including in the northeast.
For years, the mountainous territory now held by the army was expertly navigated by smugglers bringing state-subsidised diesel from Syria into Lebanon.
Syrian troops had also maintained a presence on Lebanese land there, according to Beirut-based geographer Issam Khalifeh, sometimes preventing farmers in the area from tending to their crops.
Damascus and Beirut signed an agreement in 2008 to more clearly demarcate the border, but progress has been slow and the northeastern frontier remained largely uncontrolled — until now.
“This is the closest that the Lebanese army and state have gotten to completely controlling the border with Syria,” said Aram Nerguizian of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He said many of the new army positions lay inside territory historically contested by the two countries, closer to where Lebanon says the real border lies.
Many of the soldiers who spoke to AFP on Monday described it as the closest they had ever been to this sector of the border.
“These roads weren’t here before. We opened them so that our vehicles could come through,” said the special forces member, gesturing to white gravel roads criss-crossing the hilly terrain.
“This is the first time the Lebanese army has an established presence in this area,” one heavyset fighter from the 6th Brigades told AFP.
The positions did not appear reinforced yet.
Most soldiers relaxed near armoured cars or in the shade of tents, but some manned vehicle-mounted heavy machineguns pointed at arid valleys below.
After Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011, the northeastern border areas were regularly hit by stray shells.
In 2014, jihadist militants overran both sides of the frontier, including Jurud Ras Baalbek and the Lebanese border town of Arsal further south.
The army launched its operation against jihadists in the area on Aug 19, coinciding with a simultaneous assault waged from the Syrian side by Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah and the Syrian army.
Lebanese troops had cornered IS into 20 sq km of territory (seven sq miles) in the border region when a ceasefire deal was announced on Sunday morning.
The agreement was reportedly negotiated between Hezbollah and IS and has seen hundreds of fighters leave the border area for eastern Syria.
Lebanon’s army has insisted that there was no coordination with Hezbollah on the offensive.
Hezbollah, which has intervened in Syria’s conflict on behalf of the Damascus regime, is the only faction that did not hand over its weapons after the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
Its arsenal is a highly controversial issue in Lebanon.
Late Monday, the group’s head Hassan Nasrallah said IS’s withdrawal was a “great achievement,” calling for celebrations later in the week.
Nerguizian said the Shiite movement was “trying to take credit retroactively” for the success of the Lebanese Armed Forces, which is seen in the country as a rare symbol of national unity, though its military force is rivalled by the powerful Hezbollah.
“The LAF’s swiftly executed and successful campaign is not something many Lebanese let alone Hezbollah expected,” he told AFP.
With a reinforced troop presence along the border, “the LAF’s own national security credentials could challenge Hezbollah’s,” Nerguizian said.
“In short, the battle against IS in Lebanon may be over, but the war over Lebanon’s national security narrative has only just begun.”