Thu, Sep 14, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Islamic State defectors attempt to flee Syria as group crumbles

By Martin Chulov  /  The Guardian, Istanbul, Turkey

Hundreds of defectors from the Islamic State have massed in Syria’s Idlib Governorate, with many planning to cross the nearby Turkish border and find ways back to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Several dozen former fighters have already made it across the heavily patrolled frontier to towns and cities in Turkey’s south in recent weeks, reporters have confirmed.

Four Saudi Arabian extremists arrived in a southern Turkish community early this month after paying smugglers US$2,000 each for the perilous journey past border guards, who have shot dead scores of infiltrators this year alone.

The exodus of fighters from areas controlled by the Islamic State to other parts of Syria and Iraq has continued throughout the past year, as the terror group has lost much of its former heartland to a concerted assault by Iraqi troops, forces allied to the Syrian regime and a US-led air coalition in both countries.

However, large numbers of militants and their families are now trying to leave the war-torn states altogether — posing significant challenges to a global intelligence community that, for the most part, views them as a hostile and unmanageable threat, and sees limited scope for their reintegration.

A Saudi Arabian who fled Syria late last month told reporters that as many as 300 former Islamic State members, many of them Saudi Arabians, had established a community north of Idlib city, which is now dominated by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front.

“Most want to leave, like me,” said the 26-year-old, who called himself Abu Saad. “A lot of them realize that the group they were with tricked them. Others don’t trust Nusra. There are not many who believe that the people that they were with were on the right path.”

Abu Saad said that the Saudi Arabians, as well some Europeans, Moroccans and Egyptians, had gathered together as a buffer against al-Nusra, which has exerted its influence across Idlib and the surrounding countryside by toppling its rivals.

The Islamic State has not had an organized presence in the area since early 2014, when it was ousted by a rebel assault that saw its members flee east to the town of al-Bab in the Aleppo Governorate hinterland and further into Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

However, former members of the group have steadily been returning to Idlib and seeking refuge since late 2015.

“That was when I left,” said Abu Saad, speaking days after he arrived in southern Turkey. “Others joined me later, and more are coming now.”

The full scale of the extremist exodus from Islamic State-held parts of Iraq and Syria remains unclear, with most of the land it conquered having been recaptured, leaving a divided and demoralized rump with next to nowhere to hide.

One of the group’s two main centers of power — Mosul in Iraq — fell in February, and the other — Raqqa in Syria — is slipping further into the hands of US-backed Kurdish forces who had already hounded the group from most of Syria’s northeast.

Tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters are believed to have been killed in the battle to retain territory it seized from mid-2014, and thousands more homegrown extremists are believed to have returned to their communities.

However, the numbers of foreign fighters who have survived and are looking to return to their homes have been more difficult to gauge. So too have the true intentions of men who had allied themselves to the world’s most feared terror group during its ascendancy, but claim no further part of it as its reach and influence dwindles.

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