On Saturday, February 11, the Islamic State (IS) conducted a gun attack in central Syria; approximately 75 civilians were targeted, and the operation resulted in 10 deaths and 10 injuries. This terrorist activity comes amid the aftermath of a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and exemplifies the enduring threats to Syria’s security and humanitarian landscape. Since the beginning of the war, the Syrian conflict has invoked 500,000 casualties and displaced around half of the country’s population, a reality being only aggravated by the recent natural disaster.
The attack occurred while Syrian civilians were gathering truffles in the Palmyra area. Explained in Gulf News, this strategy is not out of the ordinary as “many people, including women and children, have been targeted in recent years while truffle hunting in central, northeastern and eastern areas of Syria. In April 2021, the extremist group launched a similar attack, abducting 19 people, mostly civilians, in the eastern countryside of the central city of Hama.”
While Syria’s state news, SANA, reported the attack, it cited fewer fatalities, thus invoking skepticism over the integrity of the agency. Written in SANA: “Four citizens, including a woman, were killed and ten others were wounded…Dr. Wael Jihad Antakly at Palmyra National Hospital told SANA reporter that bodies of four people, including a woman, arrived at the hospital, in addition to ten wounded who received treatment with all necessary medical aid.”
Beyond fatalities, the IS operation left approximately 60 victims unaccounted for, leading some to believe the gun attack was a cover up for a mass kidnapping. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) monitored “the kidnapping of 75 men and women by ‘ISIS’ when they were collecting truffle in the eastern Palmyra…The kidnapped were collecting truffle for selling, where they were kidnapped with the vehicles they drove. That came in light of ‘ISIS’ exploiting the preoccupation of the international community with the destructive earthquake which hit Syria.”
Notably, the recent earthquake permitted the escape of around 20 prisoners, mostly IS militants, from Rajo jail in northwest Syria. In The National News, a Rajo jail official stated: “‘After the earthquake struck, Rajo was affected and inmates started to mutiny and took control of parts of the prison…About 20 prisoners fled…who are believed to be ISIS militants.’ The 7.8 magnitude quake—which was followed by dozens of aftershocks in the region—caused damage to the prison, with walls and doors cracking.”
IS attacks, in combination with earthquake destruction, have exacerbated Syria’s already vulnerable security and humanitarian landscape. Highlighted in Saudi Gazette, “rescue groups have criticized the lack of aid reaching Syria in the aftermath of Monday’s quake. Years of conflict have ravaged parts of the country that remain under the control of rebels, who are battling the government of President Bashar Al-Assad. His government is under Western sanctions.”
Counter IS strikes are still present. Contextually, according to Arab News, a large portion of IS “was driven from its last piece of territory in 2019, but the UN has warned that it remains a persistent threat. The huge desert region in which Palmyra is located remains one of its main hideouts…Syrian and Russian forces have continued to launch air strikes targeting Daesh’s desert hideouts.”