Search for the dead begins in Idlib after Islamic State-linked brigade leaves for Raqqa

AMMAN: Civil Defense personnel began searching for and exhuming the bodies of scores of prisoners reportedly executed in the south Idlib countryside last week by by an Islamic State-linked brigade after surrendering its last positions and withdrawing to IS-held Raqqa province.

As of Wednesday afternoon, six hours into the search, “23 bodies have been found in a mass grave,” a source who is witnessing the search operations told Syria Direct on Wednesday, asking to be referred to only as Abu Mahmoud. Four other bodies were found the same day, bringing the number of the dead to 27.

Liwa al-Aqsa, a hardline offshoot of the now-defunct Jund al-Aqsa brigade, reportedly executed up to 160 rival Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters last Tuesday south of the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The executions reportedly took place amidst heavy infighting in Idlib and Hama between Liwa al-Aqsa—thought to have close ties to the Islamic State—and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a faction that includes former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham. Most of those reportedly killed were members of FSA brigade Jaish a-Nasr who had been captured during the fighting.

Earlier this week, an agreement between HTS and Liwa al-Aqsa brokered by the Al-Qaeda-linked Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) allowed the latter to abandon their positions and headquarters in Idlib and Hama and travel with their light weaponry to Islamic State-held Raqqa province, roughly 100km east.

Liwa al-Aqsa fighters and their families began leaving on Sunday and the last convoy left early Wednesday morning, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

 Pictures circulated online Wednesday showing search operations in southern Idlib. Photo courtesy of Abu Mahmoud.

Immediately after the last gunmen left the al-Khazanat base south of Khan Sheikhoun, where the mass executions reportedly took place, members of the Civil Defense along with impatient family members entered and began searching for bodies, Abu Mahmoud told Syria Direct.

“Civilians have been told to stay away because the area is mined,” he said, but “they were impatient to see their sons.”

As the searchers discovered remains on Wednesday, some “recognized their relatives because the bodies were buried in a rocky, cold area and had not been disfigured,” Abu Mahmoud told Syria Direct.

Some “90 percent” of those found belong to Jaish al-Nasr, he added.

One picture circulating online on Wednesday shows the body of a recently deceased man wearing a blindfold. The two survivors of last week’s reported executions described groups of six-to-seven blindfolded prisoners being brought outside by Liwa al-Aqsa fighters and then shot.

Civil Defense digs for bodies Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Abu Mahmoud.

“Families are really worried about the fates of their missing relatives,” Monkeeth Alkhabour, a Hama-based journalist with the pro-opposition Syria Revolution Network told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

“Digging is ongoing at every suspected site” of the five square-kilometer Liwa al-Aqsa base where the executions took place. The base was once a Syrian Arab Army fuel depot before the war, added Alkhabour.

Before Liwa al-Aqsa left for Raqqa, the group released 15 HTS prisoners earlier this week as part of a swap for captured Liwa fighters.

Rebel and civilian sources in Idlib and Hama told Syria Direct on Wednesday that HTS fighters will take over Liwa al-Aqsa's positions following their exit to Raqqa.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.