Updated November 17
BBC reporter Quentin Sommerville’s Sunday, November 12 report on the deal to allow some ISIS fighters to leave Raqqa – entitled “Raqqa’s Dirty Secret” – has generated significant debate online since publication.
— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervilletv) November 13, 2017
On Thursday, Reuters published a story headlined “French military says coalition opposed IS withdrawal from Raqqa” that supports statements made by Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon. The story was published at 13:33:52 GMT.
Within that story, Reuters made claims about the number of fighters who had left Raqqa on October 12 in a convoy.
“A report by BBC television on Sunday said some 4,000 Islamic State militants, including hundreds of foreign nationals, had been evacuated from Raqqa as part of the agreement and spread across Syria and as far as Turkey.”
In case of later updates, the original Reuters story is archived here.
The BBC report said:
“Some 250 IS fighters were allowed to leave Raqqa, with 3,500 of their family members.”
Again, in case of later updates, the original BBC story is archived here.
The discrepancy between what the BBC report claimed – 250 fighters plus 3,500 family members – and the Reuters report – 4,000 Islamic State militants – is stark, and highlights a significant problem in reporting events in Syria: Chinese whispers change facts to fiction, errors compound creating new narratives.
Sommerville subsequently doubled down on the numbers with comment from the Coalition.
Coalition confirms BBC exclusive: 3500 IS family members left Raqqa and 250 fighters in ceasefire. Convoy stretched for 8km. Deal agreed by "local partners", coalition says it didn't want anyone to leave. Western officer was present at negotiations but didn't take "active part".
— Quentin Sommerville (@sommervilletv) November 13, 2017
Reuters clearly got it wrong. The BBC never reported that 4,000 ISIS fighters left Raqqa, nor that hundreds were foreign fighters.
It's buried a bit down this (excellent) @BBCNews investigation – though this sentence is key:
"Some 250 IS fighters were allowed to leave Raqqa, with 3,500 of their family members. "
More than 90% of those who escaped Raqqa as part of a local deal with ISIS were civilians. https://t.co/brvlEu4AW2
— Airwars (@airwars) November 13, 2017
Update November 17
Reuters updated the story, saying “This version of the story corrects paragraph three to clarify people, not fighters evacuated.”
However, Reuters is a news agency, and the incorrect story was republished at leat 50 times.
Fog of war
The Reuter report only adds to questions surrounding the BBC reporting, the “exclusive” nature of the report, and what actually happened. The report added significantly to the story, adding detail like the route to convoy took to Deir Ezzor province with interviews of people along that route, plus interviews with people who drove vehicles in the convoy, but it presents the underlying background information as entirely new
The Defense Post attempted to cover the two separate deals brokered by Raqqa Arab tribal leaders which became conflated in reporting: One allowed local Syrian ISIS fighters to surrender to the SDF (they were detained and brought to Tabqa), while the other was the deal to allow others to evacuate to Deir Ezzor.
At the time, the story was unclear. A significant portion of the BBC’s “new” information is simply clarification of what was known at the time.
Extracts from our reporting are below, but there are some significant points to note:
- On October 12, The Defense Post was first to publish the Coalition confirmation that a Coalition leader attended meetings about the deals but did not actively participate in discussions.
- On October 14, an SDF military source told AFP that vehicles were waiting near the city and would take fighters who surrendered to Deir Ezzor province.
- On October 15, the (now disappeared) SDF spokesperson Talal Silo told AFP: “More than 3,000 civilians left on Saturday night as part of a deal and went to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
- Also on October 15, Raqqa Civil Council member Omar Alloush said some foreign fighters had left Raqqa alongside Syrian ISIS militants.
On Thursday, October 12, The Defense Post published a story entitled Coalition confirms meeting on ISIS withdrawal from Raqqa but says it did not participate
A spokesperson for the U.S.-led Coalition told The Defense Post that a Coalition leader attended a Wednesday [October 11] meeting regarding an orderly Islamic State withdrawal from Raqqa, but did not participate in the discussion.
The meeting reportedly occurred in Ayn Issa, the interim base for Raqqa Civil Council.
“The Coalition is aware of the meeting between the Raqqah Civil Council and local Syrian Arab tribal elders,” the spokesperson said in a Thursday, October 12 email to The Defense Post. “A Coalition leader attended but did not actively participate in discussions.”
“The Coalition opposes any arrangement that allows ISIS terrorists to depart Raqqah,” the spokesperson told The Defense Post.
On Saturday, October 14, The Defense Post published a story entitled Council, tribes reach deal to evacuate civilians from ISIS-held Raqqa
Raqqa Civil Council and local Arab tribal elders have brokered a deal to evacuate civilians from the city, the U.S.-led Coalition confirmed in a Saturday, October 14 press release.
A convoy of vehicles will leave Raqqa later on Saturday, in an arrangement designed to minimise civilian casualties as Syrian Democratic Forces close in on the remaining parts of the city still held by Islamic State, the release said.
The release said the deal brokered on Thursday “purportedly excludes foreign Daesh terrorists” and that people leaving the city will be screened by the SDF, but it did not specify if local ISIS fighters are included in the arrangement.
“The Coalition was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives,” the release said, adding that it will mean a reduced risk of civilian casualties.
Earlier, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told Reuters that around 100 ISIS fighters had surrendered in the previous 24 hours and were “removed from the city.”
A Raqqa official told AFP that Syrian ISIS militants surrendered to the SDF.
“They sent a message to the Raqqa Civil Council and to the tribal mediators,” the official said. “Those that surrendered are local, not foreigners – the foreigners have not handed themselves in yet,” he said.
Activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently tweeted that dozens of buses entered Raqqa overnight.
An SDF military source told AFP that vehicles were waiting near the city and would take fighters who surrendered to Deir Ezzor province.
Later on October 14, The Defense Post published a story entitled ISIS fighters to evacuate Raqqa or surrender to SDF after deal with tribal elders
In a statement published late on Saturday, October 14, tribal leaders from Raqqa said that after an appeal to the SDF, an agreement was reached to allow local ISIS fighters to leave Raqqa and the tribes would “ensure their exit into areas outside the city.”
The elders said they were arranging a “mechanism” for them to leave, and they would protect those taken as human shields, reiterating that they “will ensure the lives of those who will be removed.”
Alloush said up to 500 ISIS fighters remained in Raqqa. “They have 400 hostages with them – women and children – in the national hospital,” he said.
A Raqqa official told AFP that Syrian ISIS militants surrendered to the SDF. “Those that surrendered are local, not foreigners – the foreigners have not handed themselves in yet,” he said.
On Sunday, October 15, The Defense Post published a story entitled SDF launches final assault on Raqqa after some ISIS fighters evacuated.
The story summarised and collated information from that day.
SDF spokesperson Mostafa Bali told Reuters on Sunday [October 15] that a group is ISIS fighters left the city overnight, part of a surrender or evacuate deal brokered by Raqqa Arab tribal elders and Raqqa Civil Council that was negotiated over several days.
“The operation has finished and the battle continues,” Bali said. “Last night, the final batch of fighters [who agreed to leave] left the city.”
However, Bali said the ISIS fighters refused to release civilians after they left the city as was agreed, and took the civilians with them to guarantee their own safety.
SDF spokesperson Colonel Talal Silo told AFP: “More than 3,000 civilians left on Saturday night as part of a deal and went to areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
“Raqqa is now empty of civilians who had been taken as human shields,” he added.
“If there are any civilians remaining they would be the families of those foreigners. The civilians exited completely,” Silo said.
“Only 250 to 300 foreign terrorists who refused the deal and decided to stay and fight until the end remain in the city, and relatives of some members are with them,” he added.
Bali said no foreign fighters had left the city, but Raqqa Civil Council member Omar Alloush said some foreign fighters had indeed left Raqqa alongside Syrian ISIS militants.
“A portion of the foreigners have left,” Alloush told AFP.
Alloush’s statement was later refuted by Laila Mustafa, co-chair of Raqqa Civil Council, who said that no foreign fighters had left the city, Reuters reported.
On Saturday [October 14], Alloush told AFP that the evacuated ISIS fighters may go to Deir Ezzor province.
Also on Saturday, a Coalition press release said that the deal was to evacuate civilians from the city, saying: “The Coalition was not involved in the discussions that led to the arrangement, but believes it will save innocent lives.”
On Sunday, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon said: “We may not always fully agree with our partners at times. But we have to respect their solutions.”
Earlier, Raqqa Civil Council said 275 Syrian ISIS militants and their families surrendered to the SDF under the Raqqa tribes deal. If after interrogation it is assessed that they did not take part in killings, they will be released under guarantees from the tribes, as has become common in northern Syria recently. The council said foreign fighters will not be forgiven.
On Saturday, journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg reported that the tribes were trying to convince ISIS militants to surrender, but that many wanted to leave the city instead.
The SDF said the tribes’ deal “succeed in evacuating civilians who were still in the city and the surrender of 275 local mercenaries and their families,” the Associated Press reported.
SDF spokesperson Talal Silo told Reuters that 275 Syrian ISIS fighters had left Raqqa..
AFP reported Silo as saying that 275 Syrian IS fighters and family members were with SDF fighters.
Laila Mustafa, co-chair of Raqqa Civil Council, the 275 who had left included both fighters and their families, Reuters reported.
On Saturday, Coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told Reuters that around 100 ISIS fighters had surrendered in the previous 24 hours and were “removed from the city.”