Syria regime transfers hundreds of IS fighters to Idlib: monitor

Beirut: Hundreds of fighters from the Islamic State group arrived Monday on the outskirts of Syria’s last major rebel bastion of Idlib under a regime transfer from the east of the country, a monitor said.

The jihadists were ferried overnight from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Regime forces transported more than 400 IS fighters late Sunday from the desert near the town of Albu Kamal,” the Britain-based monitor said.

They arrived in the eastern countryside of the northwestern province of Idlib at dawn on Monday, near areas where other jihadist groups are present, it said.

“Until now, we haven’t got precise information on whether or not they have entered these areas,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said on Monday evening.

A deal last week between regime ally Moscow and rebel backer Ankara has temporarily averted a regime offensive on the jihadist and rebel-held Idlib region on the border with Turkey.

More than half of the region is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate, while most of the rest is under the control of Turkey-backed rebels.

But other jihadist groups are also present in Idlib, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen extremist group.

Similar transfers of IS fighters have occurred in recent years.

In May, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime bussed 1,600 people — IS fighters and their relatives — out of a southern Damascus suburb and into the vast Badiya desert sweeping across the country to the Iraqi border.

The transfers saw the government retake control of Yarmuk, a Palestinian refugee camp turned bustling neighbourhood before the seven-year civil war, after weeks of fighting to expel the jihadists.

In August 2017, hundreds of IS fighters were evacuated from a Syrian-Lebanese border region to Deir Ezzor, according to the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah, which fights alongside Assad’s troops in Syria.

IS swept across vast parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, declaring a “caliphate” in areas it controlled.

But the extremist group has since lost most of that territory to various offensives in both countries.

In Syria, IS clings on to a small pocket in Deir Ezzor, where it is under attack by US-backed forces. The Russia-backed regime has also fought it in the Badiya desert.