Is America Negotiating with the Islamic State?

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries his weapon as he stands in front of graffiti that reads "Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ) down" at Masaken Hanano neighborhood in Aleppo

For local forces on the frontline, negotiated population transfers are better than launching an assault against an enemy that is well dug-in and determined to die.

On January 28, 2017, months after then-candidate Donald Trump vowed to wipe the Islamic State off the face of the earth and bomb the group into smithereens, the businessman-turned-president issued a presidential memorandum ordering Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, in consultation with other national security cabinet members, to submit to the White House a comprehensive war plan within thirty days. The president’s memo was as clear as a glass house: "It is the policy of the United States that ISIS be defeated.” It was the Pentagon’s duty to report back with a strategy that would accelerate the military campaign and bring the United States closer to that objective. While the memorandum was overshadowed a day later by Trump’s first travel ban, the January 27 executive order was nonetheless a public communication to the American people that the forty-fifth President of the United States would provide whatever resources the commanders needed to win the war.

War plans, however, have a habit of unravelling on the battlefield when exigent circumstances come up. Despite Defense Secretary Mattis’s pronouncement last spring that the U.S.-led international coalition would surround ISIS foreign fighters, strangle their freedom of movement, and kill each and every one of them before they had a chance to escape from Syria or Iraq, the reality of the situation is much hazier. On several occasions, ISIS foreign fighters have been allowed to evacuate with their families from besieged cities to safer terrain along the Syria-Iraq border. And in at least one case uncovered by the BBC and corroborated by Reuters last week, Washington not only knew about these evacuations plans, but allowed them to happen.

Pentagon officials strongly deny any suggestion that the United States negotiates with the Islamic State in any capacity. Officially, the war plan is the same as it was when Trump first took the presidential oath: suffocate ISIS militarily, combat its perverse ideology politically, weaken the power of its propaganda and incitement to violence on the internet and limit its funding streams. Yet there have been times this year when local power brokers on the ground, some of which have been supported by the United States, have struck agreements with tired and demoralized ISIS militants to vacate an area in exchange for assurances that it will not be attacked along the way.

In an exhaustive report filed by the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville and Riam Dalati last month, as many as 4,000 ISIS militants and their families were permitted to hop onto trucks out of the city of Raqqa and travel to ISIS territory in Deir ez-Zor. The fighters could bring their weapons with them, but they would be required to refrain from flying any ISIS flags on the convoys in order not to arouse suspicion. The two BBC correspondents interviewed the truck drivers who drove the convoy (which reportedly included fifty trucks, thirteen buses and more than 100 of the Islamic State group’s own vehicles with weapons piled in them), the shopkeeper in the desert who sold food to the fighters during their journey, the smugglers who snuck some into Turkey, and the U.S. military spokesman of the counter-ISIS military campaign who acknowledged that coalition warplanes were observing the convoy from above. One of the smugglers, a man named Imad, testified how he transported a number of foreign jihadists into Turkey, “Some...talking in French, others in English, others in some foreign language.”

Talal Silo, the former spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the main ground force assembled by the counter-ISIS coalition to retake territory from the jihadist group in northern and eastern Syria, told Reuters last week that a U.S. military official was in on the evacuation deal from the start. Journalists, he said, were kept out of the area on the prexet that heavy fighting against ISIS was continuing inside the city of Raqqa, when in reality the security measures were a ploy to ensure that exposure of the withdrawal agreement to the media was contained. U.S. military officials called Silo’s story "false and contrived,” but the narrative the former SDF spokesman offers is at least consistent with some of the BBC’s earlier reporting.

Whether or not Washington approved the staged ISIS withdrawal or not, the events that occurred towards the tail end of the Raqqa offensive is only one example of these kinds of tactical arrangements being made. Throughout Syria’s seven years of war, combatants from the Assad regime and Kurdish militias to Iranian-funded and organized Shia defense forces have found it in their interest to let their enemies go through a negotiated surrender rather than accomplish their objectives through military force.