Government buses in Quneitra province on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Suqoor al-Quneitra.
AMMAN: Syrian pro-government forces now control the entirety of southwestern Syria for the first time since 2012, after the capture of two villages near the Syrian-Jordanian border and the reported evacuation of hundreds of Islamic State fighters on Tuesday.
Syrian army units and pro-government militias—as well as former rebel groups fighting alongside them—captured the towns of Beit Irra and al-Kuwiyya in Daraa province from the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday afternoon, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
According to reports late Tuesday, hundreds of remaining IS fighters were then given safe passage towards the Badia desert—also in Syria's south—as part of ongoing negotiations to secure the release of dozens of female hostages taken by IS in a brutal, multi-phased attack on mostly government-held, Druze-majority Suwayda province last week.
Tuesday's military advances and organized evacuations likely represent the conclusion of a major pro-government aerial and ground campaign against IS in southwestern Syria. Bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes decimated the group’s positions, while pro-government forces and former rebel groups—recently reconciled with Damascus—advanced on the ground.
Forces loyal to the Syrian government penetrated IS lines last week, with each consecutive day bringing significant advances. By Sunday, IS-controlled territory in the Yarmouk Basin—a low-lying region of valleys and rivers nestled between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan—had roughly halved. By Monday evening, the Islamist group controlled only a handful of villages near the Syrian-Jordanian border.
With their defensive lines crumbling on Tuesday morning, IS controlled only one village nestled along the Syrian-Jordanian border in the Yarmouk Basin, a Syrian army lieutenant in nearby Quneitra province told Syria Direct on Tuesday afternoon.
The officer, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, said he anticipated a short time before the army took “total control of the Yarmouk Basin.”
The Yarmouk Basin had been under the control of hardline Islamist faction Jaish Khaled bin al-Walid (JKW) since May 2016. JKW enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law and regularly carried out and filmed executions of both rebel and government fighters as well as civilians—and in January 2017 reportedly killed a civilian for practicing “sorcery.”
The group reportedly declared allegiance to IS shortly after its formation, but continued to operate under the JKW banner. However, in recent weeks, IS-linked social media accounts have published statements about battles in the Yarmouk Basin referring to JKW as “soldiers of the caliphate,” without making any distinction between the two groups.
Videos posted online by pro-government media outlets on Tuesday appeared to show Syrian military vehicles, tanks and personnel enter the town of a-Shajarah, a key IS stronghold in the Yarmouk Basin, after a multi-fronted assault on IS positions saw the city captured by the government on Monday.
Pro-government journalist Rabeia Deiba posted an undated video of the operation in a-Shajarah on Tuesday morning, showing Syrian army forces launching rockets towards the town as tanks and armored vehicles advanced on IS positions.
Rebel fighters from former Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also participated in battles against IS in the Yarmouk Basin, the Syrian army lieutenant told Syria Direct.
“It’s true that opposition fighters [participated] in our battle against Daesh,” the army lieutenant said, using an Arabic acronym for IS. “Likely because they have unsettled scores with JKW,” he added.
Former rebel fighters in the Yarmouk Basin allegedly publicly executed at least ten prisoners—including a number of IS fighters—found on the outskirts of the former IS-held pocket on Tuesday, pro-opposition media outlet Enab Baladi reported.
As the Syrian army and its allies consolidate their control of the Yarmouk Basin, the government is still negotiating a final, comprehensive agreement with what remains of southwest Syria’s rebel factions. That agreement will likely see remaining southwestern opposition groups either evacuated to northwest Syria or reconciled with the government.
North of the Yarmouk Basin in Quneitra province, rebel faction Fursan al-Jolan reportedly surrendered their heavy and medium weapons to the Syrian government earlier this week, according to pro-opposition news outlet al-Modon, in preparation to merge into the ranks of the Syrian army.
Other rebel fighters refusing to surrender and reconcile with the Syrian government departed Quneitra for rebel-held Idlib province in Syria’s northwest on Tuesday afternoon, SANA reported.
Six buses departed the town of Jibata al-Khashab in Quneitra province on Tuesday, leaving the area “empty” of rebel fighters, the state news agency reported. And while the Syrian government did not release the official number of evacuees, pro-government social media accounts reported that 194 rebel fighters departed the town.
Not all rebels plan on departing Quneitra. Alwiyat al-Furqan, a formerly FSA-aligned rebel faction, intends to reconcile with the Syrian government and remain in the area, a representative from the group’s media office told Syria Direct on Tuesday morning.
“We will remain [in Quneitra], God willing,” Alwiyat al-Furqan spokesman Suheib a-Raheel told Syria Direct, citing an opposition-government deal reached 10 days ago meant to allow rebels to remain in Quneitra.
However, the anonymous Syrian army lieutenant denied claims that any rebels would be allowed to stay on in Quneitra province.
“There are factions who would like to remain in Quneitra,” the lieutenant told Syria Direct, “but the [Syrian] state, along with the Russians, absolutely refuse this.”
In mid-June, the Syrian government and its allies launched a massive aerial and ground assault on rebel-held territory in the country’s southwest. Within weeks, pro-government forces recaptured almost the entirety of Daraa and Quneitra provinces through a combination of military force and a patchwork of locally brokered reconciliation deals.
This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.