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ISIS Fighters In Syria Are Occupied By Battles On Multiple Fronts


In Syria, governments that don't exactly get along have found themselves on the same side when it comes to fighting ISIS, and we are really seeing that play out right now. ISIS is in retreat in one city, it's U.S.-backed forces fighting them, and in another city, it is the Syrian government doing the work. But there is this convoy of buses with ISIS fighters and their families that has become a powerful reminder of this messy alliance. NPR's Ruth Sherlock is on the line from Beirut. Hey there, Ruth.


GREENE: So these buses transporting ISIS fighters, stranded in the desert, right? Why are people putting so much focus on this convoy?

SHERLOCK: Well, so what happened was that it was part of a truce that was designed to end the presence of the last group of ISIS fighters that were right on the border with Lebanon. And to stop the fighting there, Hezbollah - that's the Lebanese militia - and the Syrian government agreed to transfer these fighters and their families to another city near Iraq that ISIS still controls in Syria. But that upset the coalition, the U.S.-led coalition. They said ISIS should be killed on the battlefield and not allowed to escape on buses. So they bombed the road that led to the area that they were going to. And so these buses became stranded in the desert for days, and there's ISIS fighters and families on - and their families on those buses. And though the convoy's broken up now, nobody really knows what to do with these people or what will happen to them.

And it's just so symbolic of this fierce debate that's happening now about, you know, what do we do with these kind of truce deals? Are they acceptable? And what happens to ISIS fighters in areas where they're losing?

GREENE: Yeah, a lot of unanswered questions, it sounds like. Well, let's get to the battlefield. I mean, one of the key cities where ISIS has been on the defensive is in eastern Syria. This is where the Syrian military seems to be making progress against them, right?

SHERLOCK: That's right. So the city is called Deir ez-Zor, and it's right in the east of the country near the Iraqi border and it's one of the last ISIS holdouts. And part of that city has always remained in government hands, but it's been besieged - that area was besieged by ISIS. And residents there have been surviving on food-drops by helicopters. There's a military base in that area that was also under siege, and yesterday the Syrian military, a regiment called the Tigers regiment, freed the soldiers who were trapped in that base. And now there's this big battle happening to open up the road into that wider besieged area where some 70,000 residents are said to be living.

GREENE: OK so ISIS under pressure there, but also under pressure in their capital, Raqqa, right? And that's where the U.S. is involved?

SHERLOCK: That's right. So there are local fighters with U.S. backing and U.S.-led airstrikes fighting ISIS there, and they have been making pretty fast gains. I mean, they're saying that over half the city has been taken back. But the war just isn't over yet, you know? There's ups and downs. So for example, back in Deir ez-Zor, I was talking to some people who said that this offensive against ISIS might actually have led some people to support ISIS more because they - people in that city, a Sunni city, fear, you know - the regime were against the Syrian government in the Civil War, and they fear Shiite militias supported by Iran as well. And so they're sort of - don't necessarily like ISIS but are afraid of what comes next, and that has led to some more recruitment.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Ruth Sherlock, with the latest on the fight against ISIS, talking to us from Beirut. Ruth, thanks a lot.

SHERLOCK: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.