Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, search for survivors following an air-strike on the…
FILE - Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, search for survivors following an airstrike on the flashpoint town of Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northwestern Idlib governorate, Dec. 30, 2019.

WASHINGTON - As the Syrian government forces continue to advance on the Syrian province of Idlib, the last main rebel stronghold in the country, experts say the northwestern region may no longer serve as a shelter for the Islamic State (IS) fighters who have sought refuge there following their defeat elsewhere in the war-torn country.

Syrian troops, backed by Russia, for months have been trying to take control of parts of Idlib.  

Last week, Syrian regime forces recaptured the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib, which had been under rebel control since 2012.

Idlib is home to nearly 3 million people, including many who have been displaced from other parts of Syria over the last eight years of war in the country.

Relocated IS fighters

A recent report published by the U.N. Security Council said the Syrian province remains dominated by extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State terror groups.

Idlib “also plays host to relocated ISIL fighters and dependents,” the U.N. report added, using another acronym for IS.

Following the military defeat of the terror group in eastern Syria in March 2019, many IS militants and their families moved to Idlib, fleeing from U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Experts say that IS, also known as ISIS, would inevitably face the same fate as many rebel and Islamist factions based in Idlib.

“If the Syrian regime retakes Idlib province, the ISIS members who have taken refuge in the Islamist dominated enclave will be killed or flee into Turkey,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“The Alawite leadership of Syria regards ISIS as a lethal enemy because ISIS regards Alawites in the same category as Yazidis — unbelievers whose women can be taken as slaves and whose men should be killed or converted,” Landis told VOA.

Alawites are a sect of Islam that are largely based in Syria. They make up about 10% of the country’s population. Alawites are the backbone of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite himself.

Mistrust

In addition to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the largest Islamist group in Idlib, which previously was al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, there are other extremist factions that are active in the northwestern province.

Huras al-Din is one of several al-Qaida-linked groups that have maintained a significant presence in parts of Idlib. Other Turkey-backed rebel groups also have a foothold in the province.

Western intelligence agencies believe that thousands of foreign fighters affiliated with different radical groups are active in Idlib.

Some experts believe that the ever-changing military dynamics in Idlib could determine the presence of IS militants in the Syrian province.   

IS “fighters that relocated to Idlib are in a precarious position because few local Syrian rebel groups trust them,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East expert at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington. “The ISIS presence in Idlib is facilitated by the group’s access to large sums of money, which for all intents and purposes allows it to bribe local Syrian rebel groups to abide its presence,” he told VOA.

Heras added that many IS fighters who relocated to Idlib are also Syrian nationals from the western parts of the country who have family networks there that facilitate their presence.

Baghdadi’s death

In October 2019, U.S. Special Forces carried out an operation in Idlib that killed the leader of the group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The former IS leader reportedly had been hiding in Idlib for months after moving between towns across eastern Syria as his so-called caliphate was crumbling.

The fact that “Baghdadi got to Idlib shows there was an active smuggling route from their former areas to Idlib,” said Seth Frantzman, director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.

He said IS members who have fled to Idlib in the last two years have largely remained inactive there.

They were “part of the collapse of the ‘caliphate,’ sometimes seeking to find a way to get to Turkey or Idlib from Raqqa and then Baghuz as ISIS strongholds fell,” Frantzman told VOA. 

‘Not center of gravity’

Analyst Heras of ISW says at this point Idlib doesn’t hold any strategic importance for IS as the terror group seeks to reorganize itself following the death of Baghdadi and the appointment of its new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi.

“Idlib is not ISIS’s center of gravity in Syria; that remains the Badiya [region] of the central desert region and in Deir al-Zour,” he said. “The future of ISIS will not be Idlib, which is slowly and surely falling to Assad, it is the eastern parts of Syria that border Iraq and where ISIS has the most robust local networks of support,” Heras noted, adding that IS “can sustain an insurgency for years in eastern Syria.”

Analyst Frantzman believes that any takeover of Idlib by Syrian government forces could breathe new life into IS in other parts of the country.

“If it weakens the HTS and other Syrian extremist groups, then it might make ISIS appear to be the sole extremist group still active in marginal areas,” he added.