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ISIS Convoy Retreating Back Into Syria After Being Blocked by U.S. Led Airstrikes

Natalie Johnson

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A convoy of Islamic State fighters began moving back toward the interior of Syria on Thursday after U.S.-led airstrikes hindered the militants from reaching the country's eastern border with Iraq, according to the commander for the anti-ISIS coalition.

The retreat signals failure for a ceasefire deal involving the Bashar al-Assad regime, the Lebanese government, and Hezbollah struck earlier this week granting ISIS safe evacuation from Syria's western border with Lebanon to a militant-held enclave on the Iraqi border.

The U.S. military opposed the agreement and deployed warplanes to bomb the road ahead of the ISIS convoy. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria, said coalition jets also struck ISIS fighters and vehicles attempting to approach the convoy to link up with the evacuating militants.

Townsend made clear coalition forces did not directly target the convoy, which carried more than 300 ISIS fighters, many of whom were masked and armed with machine guns, along with some 300 family members.

"The Syrian regime seems quite happy to deliver [ISIS] right to Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border," Townsend said, referring to the planned drop-off point. "I know the government of Iraq doesn't appreciate that much, and we don't appreciate it. We weren't a party to the deal … and we're going to pursue ISIS wherever we find them."

A commander in the Syrian military told Reuters on Thursday morning the convoy had retreated north toward the town of Sukhna, located approximately 164 miles from Abu Kamal, after U.S. airstrikes blocked their advance. The convoy plans to travel to ISIS-held territory in the Deir al-Zor province near the Iraqi border, according to the Syrian commander.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said at a news conference Tuesday that ferrying hundreds of ISIS fighters to the Iraqi border was "unacceptable" and "an insult" to the Iraqi people.

In response to the deal, the Iraqi government has created an intelligence operations room to track the convoy, which includes "elite commanders" of ISIS, according to Reuters, citing a senior Interior Ministry official.

The Lebanese government defended the deal, in which ISIS turned over the bodies of nine Lebanese soldiers taken prisoner in 2014.

U.S. Central Command condemned the pact as undermining joint efforts to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

"Russian and pro-regime counter-ISIS words ring hollow when they cut deals with and allow terrorists to transit territory under their control," CENTCOM said in a statement. "ISIS is a global threat. Relocating terrorists from one place to another is not a lasting solution."