by Rosie Alfatlawi
On Monday, 400 ISIS fighters began to be evacuated from the Lebanese border to eastern Syria, as part of an agreement to return eight captured Lebanese soldiers.
The militants were provided with 17 air-conditioned buses and 11 ambulances, and allowed to pass through Syrian government territory.
Lebanese leaders declared the deal a victory, coming a week after the Lebanese army began an operation against Daesh on the border with Syria.
“We do not bargain. We are in the position of the victor and are imposing conditions,” Lebanese Internal Security General Abbas Ibrahim told reporters.
The Syrian army, and its ally Hezbollah, who had been fighting ISIS in a separate offensive in the area, were also party to the deal.
Where are the ISIS fighters heading?
While most media coverage vaguely referred to the area the militants would be sent to as “in Syria’s Deir al-Zour Province”, Iraqis are very clear on where the fighters are going.
That is, to Al Bukamal, a town located only a few kilometers from the Iraqi border.
Given that Iraq has only just cleared most of its north of Daesh fighters, the prospect of the Lebanese sending over hundreds more to their backyard has sparked considerable anger in the country.
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A not inconsiderable number of Iraq’s Shia majority support Iran, a close ally of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah. Could this move, however, change opinions?
Iraqi journalist, Ali Wajeeh, wrote in an impassioned Facebook post yesterday:
“[Addressing Iraqis who support Bashar al-Assad/Iran:] We told you this is politics, and Iran is carrying out a proxy war, but you cursed us and called us traitors."
"We told you that al-Assad is the last Ba'athi regime in the region [i.e. like Saddam Hussein, hated by most Shia Iraqis], but you said no, this is a strategy."
“And Hezbollah, for the sake of a few Lebanese prisoners, are going to bring a bin full of Daesh fighters, and throw them and their families to Iraq."
“Who is going to fight them? Our sons, whose sons? Those whose parents, when they are martyred, will [end up destitute]?”
“Mosul was destroyed just so we could secure victory over Daesh, and those people [Hezbollah] for the sake of a few people gave safe passage to Daesh fighters!”
“Where is the Iranian delegation in Iraq - what do you think? ISIS fighters, they poured them out on us - if this is a strategy, what is it, friends?”
Cartoonist Nasser Ibrahim:
(Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah wave "goodbye" to the Daesh fighter heading to "Iraq")
In a sarcastic post, popular Iraqi news page, “al-Khowa al-Nathifa” made much of the “VIP buses, with air-con, and land and air protection from the Syrian army”, claiming that it was like “a Spanish [football club] coming to the stadium.”
“The Lebanese branch of Daesh must be so cute and loveable, or brothers [to the Lebanese],” the page mocked.
“If we could have made such a deal in Iraq, then we would have lost so many beautiful young men. But we couldn’t do it, because Iraq isn’t a ‘red line’”
US-based Iraqi Christian journalist, Steven Nabil, said in a Facebook video that while he was happy that Syria and Lebanon were fighting ISIS, “if we look from Iraqi eyes [...] we see that there is a grievance.”
“You bring hundreds of people from Daesh, and pour them out on the Iraqi border, and you know the Syria-Iraq border is not secure, and that Daesh is already present in Qa’im [an Iraqi town just the other side of the border].”
“For this reason, this is really dangerous.”
“These are not ordinary soldiers you can award a general amnesty too, they are soldiers you have to kill or arrest.”
“Those soldiers, who knows which of them are snipers or suicide bombers? Have you seen what a car bomb can do in Baghdad? You saw this morning, you saw in Karrada.”
“Even if only ten of them come to the Iraqi border, then an Iraqi soldier has to put his life on the line.”
“This is a deal that is not at all positive for Iraq”
Iraqi television presenter Saleh al-Hamdani wrote: “The delivery: that Hassan Nasrallah brought to us, who is going to pay the price? The Hashd [al-Shaabi, PMU] or the Golden Division or the federal police or the Counter Terrorism Service? [all sections of the Iraqi forces fighting Daesh]”
Among the comments on these videos, Hisham al-Sumari wrote “today, Iraq came under Iranian control and Iraqi politicians are simply Iranian agents.”
Elsewhere, Ahmed Mohammed commented sarcastically: “We congratulate Mr. Hassan Nasrallah [Hezbollah leader] and the heroes of the resistance on this great victory over terrorism.”
“Good job, the most important thing is that the Lebanese border is free from terrorists, let them come to Iraq, the most important thing is that they are secure.”
Potential ongoing consequences?
Whether the influx of Daesh fighters to the Deir al-Zour province, already controlled in large part by the Islamist group, will have a negative effect on the security situation in Iraq remains to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that Iraqi public opinion has been angered by this deal, which does not appear to have involved consultation with Iraqi authorities.
There has been no official statement on the agreement from Iraq’s government, and it is not yet known how it will affect regional relations.
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Could it be that the perceived betrayal by Hezbollah, Assad’s government and, by extension, Iran, over this deal could further feed the already growing popularity of Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr?
Unlike other Shia leaders in Iraq, Sadr is against Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs, and has recently strengthened ties with leaders in Sunni-majority Gulf nations Saudi Arabia and the UAE.