BEIRUT — Lebanon began transporting an estimated 400 armed Islamic State group fighters and family members from its northern border to the militants’ stronghold in eastern Syria today, according to official sources in Lebanon and Syria.
The militants were transferred as part of a deal between the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and its Syrian and Lebanese enemies. Under the agreement, the bodies of eight people believed to be Lebanese soldiers were to be returned, while Islamic State militants were to receive 17 air-conditioned buses, 11 ambulances and a free pass through territory held by the Syrian government.
Hezbollah, the Shiite-dominated group whose militia was among the parties to the deal, announced through its War Media Center that the transfer of the Islamic State fighters had begun this morning. First to go were 25 wounded fighters in ambulances, followed by busloads of fighters and others.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, also confirmed that the transfer of fighters was underway.
Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, the Lebanese intelligence chief who was the government’s chief negotiator in trying to win the return of Lebanon’s captured soldiers, defended the arrangement.
“The return of Daesh militants in air-conditioned cars to their countries is permissible because Lebanon adheres to the philosophy of a state that does not exact revenge,” he said in a radio interview, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, according to the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star.
Former President Michel Sleiman was among the Lebanese leaders who declared the deal a win for the government.
“Military victory must be supplemented by chasing down those who executed the soldiers and prosecuting them before international and Arabic tribunals,” Sleiman wrote on Twitter.
Nine Lebanese soldiers were taken prisoner during fighting in the Arsal area of northeast Lebanon in 2014. Since then, there had been little information on their fate, even though relatives have staged numerous protests in Beirut, the capital.
Just over a week ago, the Lebanese army launched an offensive in the border area to pressure Islamic State militants into negotiating the soldiers’ release. Simultaneously, Hezbollah and their allies in the Syrian government began an offensive in the same area, from the Syrian side of the border. That the operations coincided was unplanned, they said.
Both sides declared a cease-fire with the Islamic State on Sunday to allow for the recovery of the service members. Ibrahim said it appeared that the eight bodies handed over were those of the missing soldiers, although DNA identification is pending. No information about the ninth missing soldier was provided, but there have been reports that one may have joined the Islamic State militants during his captivity.
It is the first time the group is known to have negotiated a settlement to stop fighting involving a large number of militants and to give up territory.
The agreement calls for Islamic State fighters and their families to be escorted to Boukamal, an area in Deir el-Zour province, large parts of which are dominated by the militants.
The Lebanese government referred to the deal as a “surrender” by the extremist group that would remove the last of Islamic State fighters from its border region with Syria. However, the militants were simply being relocated from the northern Lebanese border, where they were surrounded by hostile, pro-Syrian government forces, to an area in eastern Syria where they are largely engaged in fighting other Syrian opposition groups or the Western-backed Syrian Democratic Front.
Lebanese army soldiers in Ras Baalbek, near the scene of the Islamic State forces in Lebanon, said the group’s fighters had been permitted to keep light weapons when they were relocated. The official Syrian news media said the militants had destroyed their fortifications and equipment before the transfers took place. There was no suggestion that they would be prevented from returning to combat.
Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and now a teaching fellow at Yale as well as a fellow at the Middle East Institute, said this was just the latest in a series of accommodations the Syrian government had made with rebel groups around the country as it consolidates its control.
“It’s not at all unprecedented,” Ford said. “There was a similar deal to the north of Raqqa; the Syrian government has cut deals like this many times with rebel groups it is fighting.”
Much more important than the return of the bodies, militarily, was the removal of the Islamic State from the Lebanese frontier. “The Syrian government and the Lebanese government get what they want, which is better control over that border, so that there aren’t any more Sunni refugees and their supporters coming into Lebanon,” Ford said.
Hezbollah, while a Lebanese party, has been supporting the Syrian government in the civil war. It is a staunch ally of President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria and of Iran.