Aftermath of the Islamic State attack on Suwayda in southeast Syria, July 25, 2018

Did the Assad regime relocate Islamic State fighters in southeast Syria, leading to the mass killing of at least 258 civilians in Suwayda Province?

Writing for Foreign Policy, Sarah Hunaidi sets out the case. Hunaidi, whose mother and aunt live in mainly-Druze Suwaida, opens:

The terrorist group has not been vanquished, and it is currently regrouping near my hometown, Suwayda, in southern Syria — an area it has long terrorized while the government of Bashar al-Assad stood by in silent complicity.

The writer and activist explains that when pro-Assad forces forced the surrender of ISIS in the Yarmouk basin in southern Syria in spring 2018, it moved the group’s fighters and their relatives to the desert in eastern Syria near Suwayda: “My family and friends saw fighters as they were transported by the regime’s green buses.”

The development had personal consequences for Hunaidi. She said goodbye to her visiting mother in Chicago on July 24. Four hours after her mother returned home, ISIS attacked. Hunaidi summarizes:

A month before…, Assad’s troops had evacuated the eastern villages of Suwayda, one of which was Rami, where my aunt lives. Three days before the attack, the Assad regime stripped the people of Suwayda of their weapons, especially the people who resided in the east and northeast. Hours before the attack, the Assad regime cut off the electricity from those villages. These same villages were the first to be attacked before dawn.

Why would the Assad regime not only accept but enable ISIS’s mass killing of its citizens? Hunaidi argues that it is part of a “scarecrow strategy” to scare religious minorities into supporting the regime against supposed enemies.

She notes that “ten of thousands” of Druze have refused to join the regime’s army. Multiple attempts at conscription have been rebuffed by elders while some men fled. So Hunaidi asserts that “the regime relied on the Islamic State to terrorize the men of Suwayda”.

After the July attack, in which 180 people were injured and up to 36 women were abducted, the regime claimed that it eliminated ISIS east of Suwayda. But residents and local sources say the Islamic State fighters are still present, scouting the area.

The capture last month by Kurdish-led forces of the last ISIS village in eastern Syria, Baghouz near the Iraqi border has compounded the situation. Hunaidi claims, from “multiple sources”, that Islamic State fighters are being smuggled from Baghouz through the desert to eastern Suwayda by Iranian-led militias, in exchange for money. A local news agency claims more than 1500 ISIS members are now in the area.