Hundreds of ISIS fighters were given safe passage out of their last remaining territory in Deraa on Tuesday, in what local sources said was part of a secret deal for the release of women and children held hostage by the extremists.
Thirty women and children have been held by the group since last Wednesday, when they were kidnapped in an attack on the southern city of Sweida.
Militants stormed the Druze-majority city and its surrounding villages in the early hours of Wednesday, setting off car bombs and murdering civilians in their homes. More than 250 people were killed — 60 of them in the village of Al Shabki, where the women and children were seized.
Negotiations between Druze leaders and ISIS had faltered in recent days, and the group threatened to kill the captives unless their demands for a halt to the Syrian army offensive in Deraa were not met.
As the Syrian army pushed on with its offensive, reports emerged early on Tuesday that ISIS was trying to use the women and children as bargaining chips to secure an exit for its cornered fighters.
“In exchange, ISIS would release 30 hostages it took from Sweida last week,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
Hopes that a deal had eventually been reached were boosted when eyewitnesses later posted pictures of defeated ISIS members boarding government buses in Deraa. A journalist in Sweida later told The National that a convoy had arrived in Badiya, a stretch of desert in the east of the province, where ISIS still operates.
“They took 400 ISIS fighters [from Deraa] and moved them to Badiya in secrecy,” said Nour Radwan, a journalist in Sweida. “It’s likely they went the long way via Damascus. Tribes in Badiya saw the convoys come in,” he said.
Similar deals have been negotiated between ISIS and the government in the past. In a grim irony, the very attack that devastated Sweida was launched from an area to which ISIS fighters had been moved to in a previous deal.
The Sweida attack has sent shockwaves through Syria’s 700,000-strong Druze community, which has been largely insulated from the war. Families of the captives had heard nothing of the government deal by Tuesday afternoon.
“The situation is very bad for them,” said Mr Radwan, who visited the village of Shabki. “According to Daesh, they are kuffar infidels. This made the families very scared that they would be killed or raped, and that they would be in a situation like that of Yazidis before.”
The Syrian army’s advances on Tuesday all but ended the ISIS presence in Deraa province, and wrapped up a string of victories for President Bashar Al Assad’s forces in the south-west.
But the south may not remain quiet for long. On Monday evening, Russia’s ambassador to Israel signalled that Iranian forces would likely not leave Syria any time soon — a key demand of Israel.
"The Iranians are playing a very, very important role in our common efforts to eliminate the terrorists in Syria," Anatoly Viktorov told Israel's Channel 10.
"That's why, for this period of time, we see as non-realistic, demands to expel any foreign troops from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic," he said.
Israel has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to strike Iranian targets, and those of its ally Hezbollah — both of whom joined the side of the Syrian government.
The diplomat also conceded that equally it could not restrain Israel, hinting that further strikes were possible.
“It is not up to Russia to give [Israel] freedom to do anything or to prohibit anything," he said.
The Syrian government will likely be looking to consolidate its victories further north in the coming future. In the past week, witnesses have reported a build-up of Syrian military forces around Idlib, which is currently held by Turkey-backed rebels.
Idlib is likely to be top of the agenda at peace talks from Tuesday in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Officials from Turkey, Russian and Iran are also set to discuss refugee returns and the release of prisoners.
Meanwhile, the UN peace envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said those same powers would be invited for talks on setting up a constitutional committee in September.
"The Special Envoy looks forward to holding formal consultations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey, very early in September in Geneva, in order to begin to finalise the constitutional committee," de Mistura's office said.