AMMAN: Smugglers are accepting enormous sums to bring civilians and fighters, including members of the Islamic State, out of the encircled south Damascus suburbs and into opposition-held northern Syria, more than half a dozen local sources tell Syria Direct.
“Dozens” of people—Islamic State personnel and civilians—have paid at least $4,000 each to be smuggled out of encircled south Damascus neighborhoods and northwards to opposition-held Idlib province since December, local sources say. A trip all the way to Turkey is more expensive, at approximately $5,000.
For civilians who are able to pay the fee, it is a chance to escape years of tight encirclement and IS control in some parts of south Damascus. For IS fighters, the smuggling route presents a chance to pass themselves off as civilians and melt into rebel areas or make their way to Turkey.
Syrian government forces have at least partially encircled an area of roughly 20 sq. km in southern Damascus since mid-2013. A mixture of government forces and loyalist militias control who and what comes in and out of the opposition enclave.
Located just 4km south of the Old City, encircled south Damascus itself is split in two: The Islamic State (IS) controls most of the western half, including the Yarmouk camp—originally a Palestinian refugee camp that was since absorbed into metropolitan Damascus. Meanwhile, a handful of Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned rebel groups are primarily present in neighborhoods to the east of areas of IS control. FSA areas, while also encircled, are subject to a reconciliation deal with the Syrian government since early 2014.
A Syrian government forces member mans a checkpoint in central Homs city in February 2017. AFP.
For Muhammad Abdelrahim, who left the government Islamic State-held Yarmouk camp by paying $5,300 in December and is now in Turkey, the decision to leave and risk a dangerous journey to the north came in part out of despair and pessimism about the future of his hometown.
“I got out because there’s no hope of life returning to the camp,” he says.
Abdelrahim is one of more than half a dozen south Damascus sources who confirmed the existence of smugglers taking south Damascus residents to the north in recent weeks.
Abdelrahim described the smugglers he paid as a mysterious “gang” whose connections and backers are not clear. What is clear, south Damascus sources say, is that the smugglers are able to bring vehicles with relative ease from south Damascus, past several government checkpoints and northward to opposition territory.
But not only civilians are leaving. South Damascus sources say that IS fighters are among those paying for passage to the north, as shown by recent efforts by IS authorities to prevent their commanders and fighters from doing so.
An IS ruling issued this month stipulates that “any IS fighters caught trying to leave pay a fine of $4,000 and are imprisoned for two months,” Jamal Ahmad, a resident of the government-encircled, IS-held Yarmouk camp in south Damascus tells Syria Direct. The directive was issued via fliers at a central IS media point in the camp, he says.
IS authorities “aren’t interfering with civilians,” says Ahmad, who says he knows three people who have paid smugglers and left the camp in recent weeks.
Why would IS fighters be leaving one of the last pockets of their control in Syria? A January 7 report by pro-opposition news site Revolution’s Spring attributed the exit of IS fighters from south Damascus since December to “internal conflict” in the group and unpaid salaries.
Salam al-Mahmoud, a member of the opposition’s Reconciliation Committee in Southern Damascus that negotiated the 2014 truce with the government, believes that the government is at least turning a blind eye to the current smuggling of fighters and civilians out of south Damascus.
“A few months ago, when lists of names of [IS members] wishing to leave were drawn up, it was like a scandal for the regime,” says al-Mahmoud. “Now, the regime is keeping quiet about it,” he alleges.
‘We were not searched at the checkpoints’
Yarmouk resident Muhammad Abdelrahim described his journey out of south Damascus and northward in a series of conversations with Syria Direct over the past month from his current residence in Turkey.
The 37-year-old former public sector employee’s account matches reports in pro-opposition Syrian media of both civilians and IS fighters leaving southern Damascus since December 2017. His story also matches details described by other south Damascus residents, who say they either personally knew people who left by paying smugglers or had heard secondhand information about it.
In December, Abdelrahim heard by word of mouth in the camp that “there were smugglers getting people out to Turkey,” he tells Syria Direct. He asked around and received a phone number. After sending a text message and waiting for a response, an individual contacted him and gave him a time to leave.
Yarmouk camp in April 2015, after IS captured much of the settlement. Youssef Karwahan/AFP.
He and eight others leaving south Damascus—“I don’t know if any of them were Daesh, but none of us was armed”—crossed in the dead of night from IS-held territory in al-Qadam district to FSA-held territory immediately south. Abdelrahim says he paid a few hundred USD to the FSA brigade when passing from IS territory into their area, but did not identify it by name.
Ajnad a-Sham is the faction reportedly in control of al-Maadaniyah, the area that Abdelrahim and others leaving south Damascus have passed through to get to government-held territory.
“I paid and got into a vehicle,” says Abdelrahim. Unable to afford the sum of $5,300 required to leave for Turkey on his own, Abdelrahim says that relatives in Europe sent him money.
The van drove out of FSA territory, through a government checkpoint, and carried on without stopping, he recalls. “We were not searched at the [government] checkpoints, they didn’t talk to us,” he says. “There was some kind of coordination, though I don’t know if directly with the regime or one of its personnel.”
But while the van carrying Abdelrahim and his companions drove through the night undisturbed, it was a journey filled with anxiety and tension, he recalls.
“You’re scared, you don’t want to know who anybody [else in the car] is, or for anybody to know who you are,” he says. “It’s a journey of death….You don’t know what will happen, and you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
Abdelrahim claims that he passed through government checkpoints in Damascus, Homs and the Hama countryside during a night journey that took seven hours, without stopping, before arriving at the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a dividing point between government and rebel territory in the northern Hama countryside.
The rebel factions Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish a-Nasr control the Qalaat al-Madiq crossing. There, rebels searched the travelers’ bags, and they carried on.
A spokesman for a rebel brigade in northern Syria confirmed to Syria Direct that civilians from the Damascus area are arriving to the opposition-held north via smuggling through government checkpoints. At entry points into rebel territory, security checks are undertaken to attempt to identify any fighters traveling among civilians, says the spokesman, who asked not to be named or his faction identified because of the sensitivity of discussing security matters.
Abdelrahim’s journey finally ended, he says, with a successful late December crossing of the Turkish border.
While opposition sources and media accuse the Syrian government in particular of facilitating the exit of IS fighters from south Damascus, it is not possible to confirm the extent to which the Syrian state, personnel and militias loyal to it have knowledge of or are involved in smuggling people out of the capital.
However, the accounts given to Syria Direct and multiple reports in opposition media all allege that those leaving south Damascus by paying smugglers thousands of dollars and passing through government territory have not been stopped at the government checkpoints lining the road from Damascus to northern Hama, a distance of more than 200km.
While Syria Direct was not able to verify who is involved in facilitating the passage of vehicles from Damascus to the north, what is clear is that both civilians and fighters from the blockaded neighborhoods have turned up in opposition-held Idlib and Turkey in recent weeks.
In one recent example, Abu Masoud al-Khabour, a man who fought alongside IS in the IS-held al-Hajjar al-Aswad district adjacent to Yarmouk camp was reported to have left on December 28 “in coordination with regime forces.” Al-Khabour reportedly died in Idlib province of a stroke on January 13.
Revolution’s Spring, a pro-opposition news site based out of south Damascus, reported on January 7 that a prominent IS commander known as Abu Musaab al-Turkmani had left south Damascus with some companions “in coordination with regime forces.” The pro-opposition Nabaa Media Foundation site later reported that al-Turkmani had reached Turkey, citing unnamed “sources.”
The recent reported exits of IS fighters follow years of talk of evacuation agreements, false starts and unfulfilled deals between the Syrian state and the hardline organization dating back at least two years.
As early as January 2016, an agreement between the Syrian government and the Islamic State for the latter’s personnel to leave south Damascus for IS-held areas such as Raqqa was reported, but never fulfilled. In May 2017, the pro-government Iranian news site Al-Alam reported that IS members in Yarmouk and al-Hajjar al-Aswad were recording the names of individuals wishing to leave for other IS-held parts of Syria.
Syrian state media has not reported on any exit of IS fighters or civilians from south Damascus in recent weeks.
‘If I had the money’
While it appears possible for civilians who have lived under encirclement in south Damascus for years to leave the capital, the smuggling route is not an option for everyone.
Ayman al-Safadi is a 28-year-old who lives in Yarmouk camp with his wife and two-year-old son. He would like to leave, but doesn’t have enough money to spend on what he considers a risky journey northward.
“By God, if I had the money, I wouldn’t sit in this hell that I’m in,” says al-Safadi. “But to leave, I would need to pay $8,000 for my wife and myself, and who knows what danger the road holds?”
As government airstrikes and a ground campaign threaten Idlib province, the largest remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, the future of the northwest grows more uncertain by the day.
Not all of the people leaving south Damascus are reportedly departing from IS-held areas. Abu Salam, a spokesman for the south Damascus-based Sham a-Rasul faction says that “a very small amount” of people had left from FSA-held Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm, in the eastern half of the encircled pocket.
Pro-opposition media outlets in recent weeks reported civilians and fighters were paying to be smuggled out of both IS- and FSA-held districts of south Damascus, heading not northward, but south towards rebel-held Daraa province.
“There is talk that [FSA] fighters left, but I don’t know anybody who did so,” says Abu Salam.