ANKARA (Reuters) - A high-level defector from Kurdish-led forces that captured the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State has recanted his account of the city’s fall, saying thousands of IS fighters - many more than first reported - left under a secret, U.S.-approved deal.
Talal Silo, a former commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces, said the SDF arranged to bus all remaining Islamic State militants out of Raqqa even though it said at the time it was battling diehard foreign jihadists in the city.
U.S. officials described Silo’s comments as “false and contrived” but a security official in Turkey, where Silo defected three weeks ago, gave a similar account of Islamic State’s defeat in its Syrian stronghold. Turkey has been at odds with Washington over U.S. backing for the Kurdish forces who led the fight for Raqqa.
Silo was the SDF spokesman and one of the officials who told the media in mid-October - when the deal was reached - that fewer than 300 fighters left Raqqa with their families while others would fight on.
However, he told Reuters in an interview that the number of fighters who were allowed to go was far higher and the account of a last-ditch battle was a fiction designed to keep journalists away while the evacuation took place.
He said a U.S. official in the international coalition against Islamic State, whom he did not identify, approved the deal at a meeting with an SDF commander.
At the time there were conflicting accounts of whether or not foreign Islamic State fighters had been allowed to leave Raqqa. The BBC later reported that one of the drivers in the exodus described a convoy of up to 7 km (4 miles) long made up of 50 trucks, 13 buses and 100 Islamic State vehicles, packed with fighters and ammunition.
The Turkish government has expressed concern that some fighters who left Raqqa could have been smuggled across the border into Turkey and could try to launch attacks there or in the West.
“Agreement was reached for the terrorists to leave, about 4,000 people, them and their families,” Silo said, adding that all but about 500 were fighters.
He said they headed east to Islamic State-controlled areas around Deir al-Zor, where the Syrian army and forces supporting President Bashar al-Assad were gaining ground.
For three days the SDF banned people from going to Raqqa, saying fighting was in progress to deal with militants who had not given themselves up.
“It was all theater,” Silo said.
“The announcement was cover for those who left for Deir al-Zor”, he said, adding that the agreement was endorsed by the United States which wanted a swift end to the Raqqa battle so the SDF could move on towards Deir al-Zor.
It was not clear where the evacuees from Raqqa ended up.
The Syrian Democratic Forces deny that Islamic State fighters were able to leave Raqqa for Deir al-Zor, and the U.S.-led military coalition which backs the SDF said it “does not make deals with terrorists”.
“The coalition utterly refutes any false accusations from any source that suggests the coalition’s collusion with ISIS,” it said in a statement.
However, a Turkish security official said that many more Islamic State personnel left Raqqa than was acknowledged. “Statements that the U.S. or the coalition were engaged in big conflicts in Raqqa are not true,” the official added.
He told Reuters Turkey believed those accounts were aimed at diverting attention from the departure of Islamic State members, and complained that Turkey had been kept in the dark.
Ankara, a NATO ally of Washington’s and a member of the U.S.-led coalition, has disagreed sharply with the United States over its support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters who spearheaded the fight against Islamic State in Raqqa.
Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the PKK, which has waged a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Silo spoke to Reuters in a secure location on the edge of Ankara in the presence of Turkish security officers. He said the security was for his own protection and he denied SDF assertions that he had been pressured into defecting by Turkey, where his children live.
A member of Syria’s Turkmen minority, Silo said his decision to speak out now was based on disillusionment with the structure of the SDF, which was dominated by Kurdish YPG fighters at the expense of Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian allies, as well as the outcome in Raqqa, where he said a city had been destroyed but not the enemy.
The Raqqa talks took place between a Kurdish SDF commander, Sahin Cilo, and an intermediary from Islamic State whose brother-in-law was the Islamic State “emir” in Raqqa, Silo said.
After they reached agreement Cilo headed to a U.S. military base near the village of Jalabiya. “He came back with the agreement of the U.S. administration for those terrorists to head to Deir al-Zor,” Silo said.
The coalition said two weeks ago that one of its leaders was present at the talks but not an active participant in the deal which it said was reached “despite explicit coalition disagreement with letting armed ISIS terrorists leave Raqqa”.
Reporting by Dominic Evans; editing by Giles Elgood