IS forces surrender last pocket of control in eastern Idlib to rebels, opposition spokesmen say

AMMAN: Hundreds of Islamic State fighters in rural eastern Idlib province surrendered their last pocket of territory there and handed themselves over to rebel forces on Tuesday, opposition spokesmen told Syria Direct.  

As many as 400 Islamic State (IS) fighters, including an unknown number of injured men, “surrendered themselves” to an alliance of Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned factions on Tuesday morning following days of battles, three rebel spokesmen said.

The reported surrender on Tuesday effectively ended IS control of its last remaining territory in central Syria, leaving the former pocket under Syrian government and partial opposition control.

Only small, isolated islands of IS and IS-affiliated territory now remain in Syria—most notably in a remote southwestern corner of Daraa province known as the Yarmouk Basin, and in the Yarmouk camp, a former Palestinian refugee camp just south of Damascus city.

Widespread military campaigns by both the Syrian government and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces swept IS from most of its territory in eastern Raqqa, Deir e-Zor and parts of Hasakah provinces last year. The provinces once contained the Islamic State’s de facto capital and oil-rich desert that served as a vital source of income for the group. Small areas of IS control remain in Syria’s sparsely populated east.

FSA fighters load an IS fighter onto an ambulance in Idlib on Tuesday. Image from Youtube via “Repel the Invaders.”

But despite a lack of widespread territorial control across Syria, sustained IS military presence in eastern Idlib and northeastern Hama since late 2017 showed the group’s continued ability to capture and hold land—if fleetingly—in central Syria.

The IS fighters who reportedly surrendered in Idlib on Tuesday came from Uqayrbat, a largely empty pastoral area of eastern Idlib province. Until two weeks ago, IS controlled a roughly 400 sq. km pocket there.

In early February, pro-government forces surrounding the Uqayrbat pocket captured dozens of IS-held towns and villages within the area, driving IS forces 20km west toward rebel territory in southeastern Idlib, according to a Syrian army statement shared by state news outlet SANA last Friday.

In Idlib, rebel forces within the Dahr al-Ghuza Operations room fired artillery shells on IS fighters until they surrendered on Tuesday morning.

Eastern Idlib was “completely empty” of IS fighters by Tuesday, Rashid Mahmoud, a spokesman with the FSA-affiliated Jaish a-Nasr militia claimed.  

Mohammad Rashid, a spokesman from the FSA’s Jaish al-Nusr group said his forces “cleansed the area” of remaining IS fighters on Tuesday. “They don’t hold any more geographic points here anymore.”

Surrendered IS fighters in rural Idlib on Tuesday. Image from Youtube via “Repel the Invaders.”

Both men’s militias are among a handful of rebel groups that fought IS in eastern Idlib this past week within a joint military operations room.

The alliance, dubbed “Repel the Invaders,” consists of seven Idlib-based factions, including Ahrar a-Sham and the Free Idlib Army. It was formed earlier this month to drive back an ongoing government offensive against rebels in eastern Idlib. Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, a hardline Islamist coalition in control of much of Idlib province, reportedly took part in this week’s clashes in eastern Idlib, though they are not part of “Repel the Invaders.”

It was not immediately clear on Tuesday what rebel forces planned to do with the IS fighters who surrendered in Idlib. A citizen journalist based near the frontline said the captives were headed to “special centers” for security searches, though Syria Direct could not immediately verify his claim.

One video posted on Youtube Tuesday shows a group of surrendered fighters huddled in an olive grove as rebels question them and search their pockets for ammunition. Over the course of the video, which bears a “Repel the Invaders” watermark, dozens of IS fighters, including what appears to be at least one child, board pickup trucks bound for an unknown location.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.