Rare Islamic State victory in rural Homs splits displaced families apart

AMMAN: In a remote, destitute displacement camp along Syria’s southeastern border with Jordan, thousands of residents were finalizing preparations last week to return home to central Homs province, fed up after years of life in the desert.

The departing residents were headed back home from the Rukban camp to Qaryatayn, a small town 160km to the northwest, nestled deep within regime territory in rural Homs province.

Some people in the camp had already sent their spouses and children back to Qaryatayn in recent weeks as living conditions in Rukban deteriorated. Someday, they planned to rejoin their loved ones in the relative safety of regime-held central Homs.

But late Friday night, Islamic State forces reportedly launched a surprise offensive and captured Qaryatayn from the Syrian regime. Virtually all communications from the town went down. On Sunday, IS released a statement online claiming their forces held “full control” over the town. Syrian state media did not report the attack.

For residents of Rukban who fled IS control of Qaryatayn two years ago, the recapture of the city came as “a shock."

“Nobody was expecting IS to return,” Abu Ward, a 25-year-old Rukban resident who fled Qaryatayn with his family in 2015, told Syria Direct on Monday. “To be honest, it was a shock—I didn’t believe the news at first.”

Once a mixed town of Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in Damascus, Qaryatayn first fell to the Islamic State in 2015. At the time, thousands of its roughly 14,000 residents fled south through Syria's eastern desert to safety in Rukban.

IS fighters east of Sukhnah on Sept. 29, photographed by the IS-linked Amaq News Agency.

Syrian regime forces recaptured Qaryatayn in 2016, but many residents who had already fled did not return for fear of arrest or forced military conscription at the hands of the authorities.

If confirmed, the capture of Qaryatayn is a rare victory for IS as the group's forces suffer major losses in eastern Syria’s Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces, amid separate campaigns by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime to eradicate the group from its remaining territory.

The surprise advance also comes amid clashes between regime and IS forces 160 kilometers northeast of Qaryatayn in Sukhnah, a key waystation for regime forces on the eastern Deir e-Zor front.

‘No communication’

Today, Qaryatayn natives still in Rukban tell Syria Direct they have “no communication” with their family members back home, as the reported IS hold over the city reaches its third day. For them, the town is a virtual black hole.

The Qaryatayn Media Center, a Facebook news page based outside of the town, posted online that it was able to contact reporters inside on Monday. According to the page, clashes between regime forces and IS continue in the town's south as civilians shelter inside. "Hundreds" of residents were arrested and later released by IS following the capture of the town, QMC reported.

Among Rukban residents with family now trapped back home in Qaryatayn is Abu Saleem, a 33-year-old father of four. He sent his wife and children home to Qaryatayn last month, after he felt life had returned to normal in the regime-held town. Abu Saleem stayed behind in Rukban because he feared arrest and conscription by regime forces.

Abu Saleem’s wife and children were among hundreds of Rukban residents who returned to Qaryatayn since August, after key supply routes to the desert camp were cut off by battles in the surrounding desert.

From his location in Rukban, Abu Saleem kept in touch with his family daily via voice messages sent online. “[My wife] told me she was doing fine, that the city was safe,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “She had just registered the kids in school.”

“But on Friday evening, she sent me a voice message. There was gunfire, and she said she couldn’t go outside the house, that IS had returned to the city. My children were crying nearby.”

Abu Saleem has heard nothing from his wife and children since Friday, he says, after communication with them “was cut off.”

“I’m afraid for my family,” he said from Rukban. “I’m afraid IS could commit massacres, or that regime warplanes could bomb the city, which could lead—God forbid—to the death of my family.”

IS fighters east of Sukhnah on Sept. 29, photographed by the IS-linked Amaq News Agency.

Abu Saleem isn’t alone. Abu Ward, the 25-year-old Rukban resident, also told Syria Direct he had barely any communication with family members who had recently returned to Qaryatayn.

Abu Ward’s brothers, nieces and elderly parents all left Rukban for their hometown about a month and a half ago, hoping for a more stable life outside of the camp. He kept in touch with his family via landline, he said, “because when IS captured Qaryatayn for the first time, they cut off cell phone coverage.”

But the last time Abu Ward heard anything substantial from his family was Friday evening, during a phone call.

“At 11:30pm, the landline cut off,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “At the time, they seemed to be doing well—there were no signs of IS. Everything seemed normal.”

He was able to reach his family members in Qaryatayn “briefly” again on Monday, Abu Ward said, “but the line cut out again.”

“I couldn’t figure out how they were doing—just that there is great panic among residents of the town.”

Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas al-Khalidi, Rukban’s current local council director, estimates some 100 families—hundreds of people—have returned from the camp to Qaryatayn since August. At the time, deteriorating food and medical supplies, as well as series of regime advances eastward along the Syrian-Jordanian border spurred camp residents to flee back home.

“We advised people against returning to Qaryatayn or other areas under regime control,” al-Khalidi told Syria Direct from the camp on Sunday.

Some 300 families were preparing to leave Qaryatayn just before news broke of the IS attack, he added. “They said that they preferred death to living in this camp.”

Today, Rukban resident Abu Saleem says all he feels is regret for sending his wife and young children home to Qaryatayn. 

“My feelings are nearly killing me,” he said from inside encampment. “Regret for sending them by themselves, regret that I’m not with them, regret for being the one who made the decision for them to return.”

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.