No way out: Thousands of Syrians trapped in shrinking Islamic State territory as regime forces advance

AMMAN: The battle for the central Syrian desert intensified on Tuesday as pro-regime forces pummeled "combatants and civilians” alike with dozens of “indiscriminate” airstrikes in an encircled pocket of Islamic State-held territory in Hama and Homs provinces where an estimated 15,000 people are now trapped.

The offensive to capture the territory, under Islamic State control since 2014 and encompassing an estimated 2,600 square kilometers, is part of a wider months-long campaign by regime forces to clear the Islamic State from rural Hama and Homs provinces.

Pro-Assad forces surrounded a remote, sparse collection of  IS-held villages spanning eastern Hama and Homs provinces known as Uqayrbat on Thursday after advancing on its outskirts. Uqayrbat lies just east of the last remaining highway from Damascus to Aleppo under regime control.

The encircled pocket is rapidly shrinking as regime and allied forces seize towns and villages within it in a series of advances that began earlier this month.

The Islamic State fought back against the sweep on Monday, destroying a regime tank within Uqayrbat, according to a statement posted online by the group’s de facto media outlet, Amaq.

At least 15,000 civilians living under Islamic State rule remain trapped inside Uqayrbat with nowhere to hide from the fighting, Ahmad al-Hamawi, who helps run Uqayrbat’s local council, told Syria Direct. The battles include pro-Assad militias on the ground and a barrage of regime and Russian airstrikes, sources told Syria Direct.

Those who remain in Uqayrbat, said al-Hamawi said, are “the poorest families,” who couldn’t afford to flee even before encirclement. For them, leaving is now impossible. Though living in Idlib since he escaped the Islamic State in 2014, al-Hamawi maintains contact with residents still residing in Uqayrbat—who rarely speak to the media out of fear of arrest or torture at the hand of IS fighters.

A pro-Assad fighter outside of a village in Uqayrbat on Monday. Photo courtesy of ISIS Hunters.

On Monday, at least 50 Russian airstrikes hit villages across Uqayrbat, pro-opposition monitor Syrian News Activists reported.

“The ground advances are tied to the extremely intense air bombardment, and hundreds of artillery shells and rockets” over the area, said Manahi al-Ahmad, a citizen journalist in the rebel-held north Hama countryside, just outside the encircled pocket. He maintains a network of contacts within Uqayrbat. On Monday, he said, “an estimated 15 planes were circling overhead.”

Both al-Hamawi and Manahi al-Ahmad told Syria Direct on Tuesday that the dead numbered “no less than 50” civilians since the start of encirclement.

The wounded have few options for medical treatment and no doctors available to them in the rural, closed-off pocket. Even before the war, healthcare was lacking in the remote villages that dot Uqayrbat, where most residents work as shepherds.

Among the seriously injured on Tuesday were children and residents “who have lost their limbs,” Abu Ahmad, a civilian still living inside the encircled territory said. Syria Direct spoke to him via Manahi al-Ahmad, the citizen journalist.

The dead simply lie “strewn across the ground,” Abu Ahmad said, with nobody to come remove them.

For those caught inside the encirclement, hoping to flee to other parts of Uqayrbat for safety, “movement even within the villages has become difficult” due to the bombs, Abu Ahmad added. “They stay at home and wait for the unknown. Death can reach them in any place.”

Battle for eastern Syria

Uqayrbat is the westernmost region of a swathe of Islamic State-controlled territory spanning central and eastern Syria.

IS fighters seized the villages that make up the area in 2014, sending tens of thousands of residents—including Ahmad al-Hamawi—fleeing into neighboring Idlib province for safety.

Today, Uqayrbat sits just east of the Syrian regime’s sole remaining highway linking Damascus to Aleppo within its territory—though the stretch of regime-held turf surrounding the highway as it passes by Uqayrbat is less than five kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

Seizing the entire, encircled Uqayrbat pocket would earn the regime wider control of territory surrounding the adjacent highway.

The Uqayrbat battles are also tied to a larger campaign by regime forces to seize swathes of eastern, IS-held land in a push toward Deir a-Zor and Raqqa provinces—including Sukhnah, a town in remote eastern Homs province captured from the Islamic State earlier this month. The town, one Syrian Arab Army source told Syria Direct at the time, serves as “the gateway to both Deir a-Zor and Raqqa.”

Capturing the Uqayrbat pocket would also oust IS forces from the rear of the regime’s push east across the desert.

But Uqayrbat residents say the military advances and airstrikes are targeting them as well, killing “combatants and civilians and alike,” said Mohammad Azz a-Din, 40, who fled Uqayrbat one month ago with his wife and three children due to “increasing Russian and regime airstrikes.” Unlike the 15,000 people now trapped inside Uqayrbat, he was lucky enough to escape before encirclement. [Read Syria Direct’s full interview with Mohammad Azz a-Din here.]

“Unfortunately, our only sin is that we live in areas under Islamic State control,” he told Syria Direct from relative safety of a camp in neighboring rebel-held Idlib province. Pro-regime forces “consider us all to be the Islamic State.”

For Azz a-Din and his family, what should have been a 100km drive northeast to safety in Kurdish-controlled Raqqa one month ago stretched into 900km, he told Syria Direct, as the family avoided warplanes and skirted IS checkpoints.

“Thank God [the airstrikes] landed far from us,” he said.

The opposition’s Hama Provincial Council released a statement on Monday calling on the “United Nations and friends of Syria” to push for civilian evacuation routes out of Uqayrbat.

But on the ground in Uqayrbat, resident Abu Ahmad said there is still no safe passage from the pocket.

“The Syrian and Russian warplanes are indiscriminate,” he said. “Even today, people were bombed as they were trying to escape to a different area for safety.”

Abu Ahmad says he rejects both the Islamic State and the Syrian regime. “We just want to survive and for our children to survive.” 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.