Dominic Evans, Orhan Coskun — Reuters Dec 8, 2017
A high-level defector from Kurdish-led forces that captured the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State has recanted his account of the city’s fall, saying thousands of IS fighters – many more than first reported – left under a secret, U.S.-approved deal.
Talal Silo, a former commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the SDF arranged to bus all remaining Islamic State militants out of Raqqa even though it said at the time it was battling diehard foreign jihadists in the city.
U.S. officials described Silo’s comments as “false and contrived” but a security official in Turkey, where Silo defected three weeks ago, gave a similar account of Islamic State’s defeat in its Syrian stronghold. Turkey has been at odds with Washington over U.S. backing for the Kurdish forces who led the fight for Raqqa.
Silo was the SDF spokesman and one of the officials who told the media in mid-October – when the deal was reached – that fewer than 300 fighters left Raqqa with their families while others would fight on.
However, he told Reuters in an interview that the number of fighters who were allowed to go was far higher and the account of a last-ditch battle was a fiction designed to keep journalists away while the evacuation took place.
He said a U.S. official in the international coalition against Islamic State, whom he did not identify, approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.
At the time there were conflicting accounts of whether or not foreign Islamic State fighters had been allowed to leave Raqqa. The BBC later reported that one of the drivers in the exodus described a convoy of up to 7 km (4 miles) long made up of 50 trucks, 13 buses and 100 Islamic State vehicles, packed with fighters and ammunition.
The Turkish government has expressed concern that some fighters who left Raqqa could have been smuggled across the border into Turkey and could try to launch attacks there or in the West.
“Agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” Silo said, adding that all but about 500 were fighters.
He said they headed east to Islamic State-controlled areas around Deir al-Zor, where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.
For three days the SDF banned people from going to Raqqa, saying fighting was in progress to deal with militants who had not given themselves up.
“It was all theater,” Silo said.
“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir al-Zor”, he said, adding that the agreement was endorsed by the United States which wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.