The convoy had been traveling from west to east. The ISIS fighters bombed by the coalition apparently had been coming to their rescue, on the same highway but from east to west. There were no reports from Syria that the convoy had reached its destination in Deir al-Zour Province in eastern Syria, the last major ISIS stronghold.
The Lebanese Army, in coordination with Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, arranged on Monday for 670 Islamic State fighters and their relatives to be taken in buses and ambulances from the Lebanese-Syrian border, near the town of Arsal, nearly 300 miles across Syrian government held territory, to Abu Kamal, close to the border with Iraq. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, said in a speech Monday night that the evacuees included 26 wounded fighters, 308 armed fighters and 331 civilians, presumably family members of the militants.
The Islamic State fighters had been surrounded by Lebanese and Syrian forces on both sides of that border. The group made the safe-passage deal to try to win the freedom of its fighters in exchange for turning over the bodies of nine Lebanese soldiers taken prisoner in 2014.
The bodies were given back to Lebanese forces between Sunday and Tuesday.
Colonel Dillon said the pact undermined efforts to fight the Islamic State in Syria. Iraq, normally an ally of the Syrian government, joined the American military in criticizing the decision to relocate the militants.
“The coalition, we are not party to this agreement between Lebanon, Hezbollah and ISIS,” Colonel Dillon said. “Their claim of fighting terrorism rings hollow when they allow known terrorists to transit territory under their control. ISIS is a global threat, and relocating terrorists from one place to another is not a lasting solution.”
Colonel Dillon said airstrikes directly on the Islamic State convoy remained a possibility but as of late Wednesday had not been carried out because coalition officials were trying to verify whether civilians were intermingled in the group.
“We are monitoring these fighters in real time, we will take action where necessary, those would be absolutely lucrative targets,” he said.
“We’ve seen ISIS use protective sites like hospitals and mosques, seen them drive in ambulances,” Colonel Ryan said. “So if we do identify and find ISIS fighters who have weapons — we can discriminate between civilians and ISIS fighters — we will strike when we can. If we…