An Armed Attack Kills Dozens of Truffle Hunters in the Syrian DesertAugust 14, 2023
- About the incident
- About the impact area
- The truffle season and the risks of harvesting truffles
- Days before the incident:
- What happened and when
- Determining the timing
- Areas of influence in the Syrian Badia:
- The military groups present in the region:
- The Economic Situation in the Region:
- Allegations about the possible responsible party:
- Allegations regarding the responsibility of Iranian militias and Syrian government forces for the incident:
- Allegations of ISIS responsibility for the incident:
- Allegations regarding the responsibility of truffle traders for the incident:
- Similar attacks:
Table Of Contents
About the incident
- Place of incident: Wadi Al-Dabayat also known as Al-Thbiyat (34.707015439306566, 38.94316445074936), is located in the southern countryside of Al-Sukhnah, also written as “As Sukhnah”, Homs.
- Date: 17 February 2023.
- Time: Afternoon, between 13:30 and 16:18 local time.
- Victims: Approximately 53 victims, including at least seven soldiers affiliated with the Syrian government forces and/or the Syrian police.
- Type of attack: Killing of truffle hunters.
- Munitions likely used: Unknown, but reports mentioned small arms munitions were used.
- Potential perpetrator: Afghani militias affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (Fatemiyoun) or the Islamic State organization (ISIS).
On the afternoon of Friday, 17 February 2023, at least 53 people were killed, including seven soldiers affiliated with the Syrian government forces or the Syrian police, in an attack on truffle hunters in the Al-Dabayat area of the southern Al-Sukhnah countryside, in the Homs province.
The investigation team conducted an investigation into the incident by:
- Gathering and analyzing testimonies of eyewitnesses, journalists, and activists from the local residents, which were published by several websites and media outlets.
- Preserving, analyzing, and verifying videos and photos uploaded on social media networks, reportedly showing victims who were killed while harvesting truffles.
- Determining the approximate geographic location of the impacted area, excluding the impact site due to the absence of visual content showing prominent landmarks, and approximating the site’s distance from the locations of Syrian government forces and affiliated militias.
- Identifying previous patterns of attacks on truffle hunters during the month of February 2023.
- Tracking individuals alleged to be truffle hunting and traders associated with the Syrian government in the area.
This investigation is a summary of multiple stages of analysis of available open source information For more details about Syrian Archive’s methodology, please visit our site.
About the impact area
Al-Sukhnah is a city located in Homs Governorate, situated on the road between the Homs and Deir ez-Zor Governorates. The city holds strategic importance because of its location on the international road “M20,” which connects Homs and the capital Damascus to the city of Deir ez-Zor. In August 2017, Syrian government forces and their allies regained control of Al-Sukhnah, marking the final city previously held by ISIS in Homs Governorate.
Al-Sukhnah is also an important transportation hub surrounded by oil and gas fields. The Al-Hail field—located in Al-Sukhnah— is the second-largest in terms of production after the nearby Al-Shaer field near the city of Palmyra.
The Al-Dabayat or Al-Thbayat areawhere the incident took place is located southeast of Al-Sukhnah. It is home to two gas fields and is situated near the T3 Pumping Station, which is under the control of Syrian government forces. Despite this, Syrian government forces have reported attacks against their soldiers in this area over the years.
A map of the Syrian Desert shows the location of Al-Sukhnah and the Al-Dabayat area. Annotated by Syrian Archive, the map’s blue circle highlights the specific location in the image captured by Syrian Archive on 9 July 2023, from Zain Al-Abidin’s Twitter account.
The truffle season and the risks of harvesting truffles
The truffle harvesting season is considered an important seasonal activity in many regions of Syria, providing a source of livelihood for numerous families, especially those residing along the Iraqi border in the vast stretches of the desert between southern and northern Syria. Typically, the hunt for and extraction of truffles begin towards the end of January, but in 2023, the season began on the first of the month.
Truffle harvesting yields lucrative profits, especially since the Syrian desert is considered a major habitat for truffles. This has ignited competition between local residents, Syrian government forces, their affiliated militias, and even ISIS fighters in the area. Some sources claim that this has driven the locals to bribe security officers, Syrian army personnel, National Defense militias, and Iranian militia members, to gain entry into the desert and share in the truffle collection. Truffles are seen as a lucrative financial resource,creating an economic network of truffle traders who send their trucks loaded with workers to harvest truffles.
The activity of truffle hunting in the Syrian desert, including in the city of Al-Sukhnah and its surroundings, has been accompanied by a range of risks in recent years, including killings, kidnappings, and mine explosions. These risks have resulted in the deaths of approximately 244 individuals between 6 February and 16 April, 2023, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The killings have targeted both civilians and military personnel and have not only impacted men but also women and young children, as truffle hunting often involves entire families.
According to a report from the Syrian government-affiliated channel Al-Alam, approximately 47 people have lost their lives, and 71 others have been injured between 5 February and 2 March 2023 because of landmines and unexploded munitions during truffle hunting activities. A report published by the Orient website attributed the deaths caused by landmines in various areas to Syrian government forces and Iranian militias, while the Syrian government claimed that ISIS was responsible for fatalities as a result of mines.
A report by the Middle East website, citing a statement from a nurse, states, “The fatalities among the truffle workers, whether due to landmines or attacks, are recorded as deaths resulting from terrorist attacks by ISIS.”
North Press reported that the deteriorating security situation in Deir ez-Zor, especially in its eastern countryside, under SDF control, was due to the gangs exploiting the fear of ISIS and carrying out their actions under the name of IS.
A picture of a girl holding truffles - Source: Xinhua News Agency- Captured by Syrian Archive on 24 June 2023
A report published by the anti-government Al-Araby Al-Jadeed website in March 2023 claimed Iranian militias were responsible for the abduction of individuals while searching for truffles on the Al-Bishri Mountain.
According to what was published by both the Deir al-Zour 24 Facebook page and the Sy24 website, the security committee, the military, and the the National Defense Forces prevented civilians from going out to collect truffles. Al-Bosraya clan issued a statement calling its citizens not to go on truffle hunting due to the security threats, adding that any person who would go will face legal and tribal consequences. The Economist Syria website published a report stating that Haj Asadi, the commander of the General Security of the Revolutionary Guard in the eastern region, was tasked by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammad Reza Tahhidi, with “establishing a mechanism to prevent civilians from infiltrating the desert, including planting mines and deploying surveillance groups to kill anyone they encounter.”
The Sy24 website spoke about the division of the Syrian desert and truffle gathering areas between the National Defense forces and the Iranian militias, as well as the Fourth Division. The Fourth Division reportedly forced truffle workers to accompany them and provide information about mine locations in exchange for receiving half of what they collected, according to a New York Times report.
Days before the incident:
A photo posted by Zine El Abidine’s Twitter account showing the scene of the 11 February incident - Taken by the Syrian Archive on 21 July 2023
Journalist Muhammad al-Asaad posted three videos on his Facebook page, which included audio recordings where locals are pointing out ISIS’s responsibility for the incident, and a video that appears to have been filmed by a woman who was among the truffle hunters while she was escaping from the place. She says that ISIS killed several people, including women and children, while they were collecting truffles. .
The Palmyra News Network account on Twitter had published that “the attack came after a NDF fighters shot at a motorcycle driven by an ISIS member in the vicinity of the T3 station, before ISIS fighters launched the attack and kidnapped about 170 people including women, and set fire to 4 trucks that were carrying civilians and stole a fifth truck with its loads.”
On 15 February the Deir Ezzor News page posted on Facebook that the Homs Division of the Badia Regiment found 16 bodies and 21 wounded.
Two days later, the same page posted pictures that it said were taken while combing the areas of Al-Sukhna by members of the local Al-Hussein Brigade, affiliated with the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia, to search for the missing persons in the Murir incident.
Pictures posted by the Deir Ezzor News page of members who said they were from the Liwa al-Hassan militia while searching for the missing persons in the Murir incident. captured by Syrian Archive from the page of Deir Ezzor News on 25 June 2023
What happened and when
”al-Sukhnah Al-Hadath” Facebook page, ”Badiya 24,” ”Daraa Net,” the pro-Syrian government TV channel ”Al-Khabar,” ”Syrian Events,” ”Zain Al-Abidin,” the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), ”Sham FM,” ”Al-Mayadeen” channel, and ”Alaan Media Agency,” along with activists and other pages on social media, published news about the killing and injury of civilians during an armed attack while they were hunting for truffles in the Al-Dabayat area in the southern countryside of Al-Sukhnah, Homs countryside.
The director of the General Authority of Tadmur National Hospital, Dr. Waleed Ouda, stated in an interview with SANA correspondent that the hospital received the bodies of 53 martyrs. SANA agency also quoted one survivor as saying that ISIS elements burned the citizens’ vehicles at the scene. In the same context, media outlets circulated a video of a burning truck claimed to be from the same incident, while others held the Iranian militias (Fatimiyoun) responsible for the incident.
Screenshots from a video of a burning truck claimed to be from the same incident, captured by Syrian Archive from the page of Mohammad Khalifa Al-Sarawi on 12 June 2023.
Zain Al-Abidin posted a tweet on his Twitter account, citing eyewitnesses, stating that the attack took place in the Al-Thbayat (Al-Dabayat) area, south of Al-Sukhnah in the Homs countryside. He mentioned that IS elements attacked the truffle hunters and burned three civilian vehicles at the location. He also mentioned 30 were people still missing.
The Kamishli - Qamişlo Facebook page published news accompanied by a picture of a burning truck, reporting of 53 fatalities in an attack that targeted truffle workers, along with dozens of people missing, including police forces, in the southeastern countryside of Al-Sukhnah in eastern Homs.
The Al-Sukhnah Al-Hadath Facebook page published a video on the day following the incident showing the bodies of dozens of victims loaded onto a truck, with some of them stacked on top of each other. The video shows bloodstains on their faces and bodies.
Murasil Al-Badia 24 Telegram page also published screenshots showing bodies loaded into the back of a truck, with their faces, heads, and clothes bearing traces of blood. The accompanying news stated that “more than 50 civilians were killed while collecting truffles following an attack carried out by Iranian militias and Assad regime militias in the southeast of Al-Sukhnah city, 25 kilometers east of the Al-Zabiat field in eastern Homs countryside. The post claimed that among the dead were women and young men, with most of the victims shot in the head and their cars stolen. Some civilians managed to escape from the attack location.”
One of the victims of the attack recounted in a video on the Global Video page during a meeting with him inside the hospital, “We were searching for truffles east of Al-Sukhnah by about 20 kilometers to the right of the Dabayat area. As we were extracting the truffles, armed members of ISIS opened fire on us with light weapons, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. They also set fire to the vehicles, which included two cars and a motorcycle. Some of us managed to escape and reached areas controlled by the Syrian army, until a backup arrived. Our group consisted of around 300 to 500 people.”
Screenshot showing Wadi Dabayat in gray, captured by Syrian Archive from liveuamap on 9 July 2023
Screenshot from Google Earth satellite imagery with pins added by Syrian Archive taken on 9 July 2023
The injured survivor’s account in the Global Video matches with the location of Wadi Al-Dabayat in terms of distance and direction, as the Dabayat area is approximately 20 km southeast of Al-Sukhnah.
A screenshot showing the distance between Al-Sukhnah and Wadi Al-Dabayat on satellite imagery from 10 July 2023 available on Google Earth Pro and annotated by Syrian Archive .
Another survivor stated in an interview by Tahat Al-Mijhar website: “While we were collecting truffles in the Al-Dabiyat area south of Al-Sukhnah in the Tadmur Desert, we came under attack from ISIS militants who opened fire at us. We fled the area in all directions.”
Tadmur News Network quoted its correspondent, who reported an armed attack on civilians collecting truffles with their vehicles set on fire in the Al-Dabayat area, specifying the time as the afternoon of Friday, 17 February 2023. The attack resulted in the killing of 46 civilians and seven members of the Syrian government forces southeast of the city of Al-Sukhnah.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented, in a report published on its website, the killing of 61 civilians from the Al-Sukhnah region in eastern Homs, in addition to 7 members of a checkpoint belonging to the Syrian government forces, by ISIS militants in the Al-Dabayat area, in the eastern Homs countryside.
The observatory described the attack as “the bloodiest” since the beginning of the year, stating that ISIS militants were riding motorcycles and used medium and light weapons in the attack on the truffle hunters.
Zain Al-Abideen, in a personal blog post, mentioned that the attack took place in the Al-Thabayat (Al-Dabayat) area south of Al-Sukhnah. According to the post, IS burned four civilian vehicles, targeting two of them with RPG launchers, while the other two were set on fire later in the same day. The post claimed that the attack resulted in the death of 53 people, including 46 civilians and 7 soldiers and police officers belonging to the Syrian government.
Screenshot from a video by Mohamed Khalifa Al-Sarawi on Facebook, showing one of the cars that was said to have caught fire in the incident. Captured by Syrian Archive on 14 July 2023
On the same day, Al-Sukhnah Al-Hadath channel published a video showing a gathering of people near what was claimed to be one of the Syrian government’s military checkpoints. A crackling sound can be heard in the video, allegedly gunfire and one of the individuals can be heard saying, “They want to slaughter us.” This statement seems to indicate that they were prevented from approaching the location where the accompanying news report stated the incident took place, and they accused Iranian militias as responsible for the killings.
Determining the timing
The first reports of the incident came from the Al-Sukhna Al-Hadath page on 17 Februaryat 16:18, reporting the killing and injuring of several truffle hunters in an armed attack in the Al-Dabayat area, south of Al-Sukhnah. According to the initial report, which named a victim of the attack, the attack also resulted in the burning of cars.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Nahar reported details of the attack, specifying its timing at 1:00 PM on 17 February 2023. At 17:16, Al-Sukhnah Al-Hadath reported news of some survivors being rescued from the incident and contacting their families, while others were reported missing. At 22:57, the same page posted a video of one of the burnt trucks, along with the names of some of the deceased.
On Facebook, Sawt Al Madina published news of the death of an officer from the Traffic Police Branch of Homs at 19:49. At 23:16, the Bani Khaled - Al Maraween page announced the death of 17 people, including children, from their community.
Reports about the incident continued to emerge as Makanes Al-Hammad page, the Twitter account of Zain Al-Abidin, Deir Al-Zor News Network, activists, news websites, and social media pages all published news about the incident on the same day.
Considering that several testimonies indicated the incident occurred in the afternoon and that the first report about the incident was published at 16:18 on the local time of Friday, 17 February 2023, it is likely that the incident took place after 13:30 and before 16:18 on the day.
On 19 February 2023, Al-Ordonia Net website published a video showing what claimed to be a Syrian activist identifying the location of the incident. The images in the video match the Al-Dabayat area, south-east of Al-Sukhnah. The activist mentioned that on February 6, truffle hunters, including women and children, from Raqqa province went to the area near al-Sukhnah but they were attacked by pro-Iran militias and around 200 were killed. He added that on 17 February, locals from Raqqa province went to an area near al-Sukhna to search for truffles were also attacked by pro-Iran militias and around 70 were killed including women and children
A screenshot from the Al-Urdunyya Net video showing the location of the incident, captured by Syrian Archive 14 June 2023
The specificity of the location of the incident was unable to be accurately determined due to the lack of videos or images showing prominent landmarks in the area. However, based on the information published by social media testimonies and the statement of the injured survivor in a Global video, it is possible to identify the region where the attack occurred in the Al-Dabayat area, southeast of Al-Sukhnah, at a distance of approximately 20 to 25 kilometers.
*Screenshot from Google Earth, approximately showing the locationof the incident, captured by Syrian Archive on 10 July 2023*
Media outlets circulated photos showing bodies of deceased individuals, said to be victims of the incident, placed on top of each other inside a truck’s cargo box. Some of them exhibited traces of blood and injuries, particularly on their faces and heads. Additionally, the video included footage of their burial ceremony, along with a picture showing the victims in their shrouds before the burial process.
Screenshots of bodies placed on top of each other inside a truck’s box, allegedly belonging to the victims of the attack on Al-Dabayat, captured by Syrian Archive from the Murasel Al-Badia 24 channel on Telegram on 10 June, 2023.
The news about the number of casualties in the incident varied, ranging from 53 to 75 victims. Activists, journalists, and news pages reported that over 75 people, mostly from the Bani Khaled tribe in the Syrian Badia, were killed while searching for truffles in the desert.
The Twitter account of the Bani Khaled tribe forum mentioned the death of more than 70 people, including women and children, in the incident. Meanwhile, Radio Al-Kul estimated the number of civilian casualties at 56, including eight women.
SANA quoted Dr. Waleed Awadah, the Director of the General Authority of Tadmur National Hospital, stating that the number of victims whose bodies arrived at the hospital reached 53 individuals. After examination, he claimed that the cause of death was gunshot wounds to the head.
SANA report aligns with news circulated by various websites and activists, including Syria TV, Al-Badia 24, Tadmur News Network, Thaqafa News Agency, Syrian Ministry of Information, Al-Mayadeen channel, Rasha Hasan, and Khaled Skif. All of them specified the number of casualties as 53, including 46 civilians and 7 members of the Syrian government forces and police.
Screenshot from Tadmur News Network’s tweet on Twitter, showing the number of casualties in the truffle hunters incident, captured by Syrian Archive on 11 July 2023
On 19 February 2023, the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan published in its issue number 3922 a report stating that the number of victims had risen to 68. The report quoted the director of Tadmur National Hospital confirming that most deaths were caused by gunshot wounds to the head. Additionally, five individuals suffered shrapnel injuries in various parts of their bodies, and they received first aid before being transferred to hospitals in Homs.
Screenshot from issue number 3922 of the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, captured by Syrian Archive on 10 July 2023.
By cross-referencing and collating the news from various social media platforms, the names of 24 individuals were identified as alleged victims of the incident. Among the sources were a statement from the Bani Khaled tribe, which included 15 names, a tweet from Zain Al-Abidin on Twitter, the live broadcast of Tadmur News Network, Sawt Al Madinah’s live, and Al-Sukhnah Al-Hadath.
Screenshot from a statement No. 2 of the Bani Khaled tribe, including the names of fifteen victims from the Bani Khaled tribe, captured by Syrian Archive on17 June 2023
Screenshot from the Facebook page Bokmalna showing the bodies of the deceased before their burial, captured by Syrian Archive on 7 June, 2023.
In addition to the civilians killed in the attack, according to news reports from available online sources, seven members of the Syrian government forces, including the army and police, were also killed. The ranks and affiliations of six of them have been named in several social media posts as:
- Ali Faysal Zarqa is a Captain officer from the town of Wadi Al-Ayoun, which is part of the Masyaf area in the Hama countryside. He is part of the ranks of the Traffic Department in Homs (Al-Sukhnah Roads Center).
- Ibrahim Al-Daman is from the village of Tal Qurtal in Hama and belongs to the ranks of the Homs Governorate Police Command.
- Mohammed Issa Mar’i holds the rank of First Lieutenant in the police and is from the village of Sheen in the Homs countryside.
- Alaa Mohsen Ibrahim with the rank of Honorary Lieutenant is a member of the police Command in Homs Governorate.
- Mohammad Samih Ouda, with the rank of Honorary Lieutenant, is from the village of Hirqal in the countryside of Homs, and he is a member of the police Command in Homs Governorate.
- Yamen Saleh Jouriya, with the rank of Honorary Lieutenant, is from the village of Kafr Aqid in Masyaf and is a member of the police Command in Homs Governorate.
Some pro-Syrian government sources claimed that the killing of the individuals occurred during a pursuit of ISIS fighters.
Photos of the victims’ bodies from the police during their funeral procession from Abdul Qader Shafqa military hospital in Homs were captured by Syrian Archive from the page of journalist Wahid Yazbek on 13 July 2023
Zain Al-Abidin post explains the presence of police and army elements affiliated with the Syrian government forces alongside the workers of the truffle hunters, following a customary tradition. It states that truffle hunters must obtain official permission from the City Council of Tadmur and the Police Command Center to enter the area. The conditions include having work teams of at least 100 people, accompanied by a military force from the police, army, or National Defense Force, which typically consists of 30 personnel. In return for their service, the workers receive a share of the production. In the incident at Dabayat, there were 9 police and army personnel accompanying the workers.
According to a news report published on an economic-political website, Iranian militias, under various names, are preventing “the presence of elements from Syrian security, military, or civilian formations in the Syrian desert”. The report claimed “considering them legitimate targets in its war to prove its control”. The report alleges that “there are orders to deal with Syrian army and affiliated forces in the same way as civilians, through abduction and elimination operations”.
Areas of influence in the Syrian Badia:
The military groups present in the region:
The Syrian government forces and Iranian militias began asserting their influence over Al-Sukhnah after capturing it in 2017. In the region, there are forces from the 18th Division, 17th Division, 3rd Division, 11th Tank Division, and the 4th Division, in addition to Iranian-backed militias. These militias include the Fatemiyoun Brigade Afghan militias, the Al-Nujaba Movement and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq Iraqi militias, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and forces affiliated with the 4th Division of the Syrian government forces. The pro-government Liwa al-Quds and National Defense Forces militias are also based in and around Sukhnah and both regularly conduct anti-ISIS patrols in the countryside.
A map showing the distribution of military sites in Syria, indicating the presence of Iranian forces’ locations in the Al-Sukhnah area and its surroundings, was captured by Syrian Archive from Harmoon Center website on 21 July 2023
A map showing the presence of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah forces in the Al-Khafsah area and its surroundings. The blue circle—added by Syrian Archive— represents the area of Al-Dabayat. Captured bySyrian Archive from the Harmoon website on 21 July 2023.
According to the Jusoor Center for Studies, there are 67 Iranian military bases and sites in Homs province, distributed as follows: 33 points are under the control of the IRGC, 19 points belong to the Lebanese Hezbollah, and 15 points are jointly controlled by both forces.
Screenshot of infographic that shows foreign military sites and bases, including Iranian forces, in Homs province, captured by Syrian Archive from Jusoor website on 21 July 2023
Control over the Syrian Badia is divided among three external powers vying for influence in the region: the United States of America, Russia, and Iran, supported by local proxies, according to a report published on the Raseef 22 website. The Fatemiyoun militia, mentioned as a possible party involved in the incident in Al-Dabayat, is stationed in the Syrian Badia and in areas near Al-Sukhnah. The Iranian militias consider this region of great importance as it serves as a critical link between their influence in Iraq and Syria.
A picture of direct and indirect Iranian influence in Syria in 2020, taken by Syrian Archive from the Jada Iran website on 7 June 2023
There are three other foreign militias in addition to Hezbollah in Syrian Badia, which are:
The Brigade was established in 2014 and consists of Shia Afghan fighters under direct Iranian leadership. In January 2019, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, supported by the IRGC was added to the U.S. sanctions list. The brigade’s fighters have been involved in combat missions in Deir ez-Zor and Al-Bukamal since November 2017 until the present. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the estimated number of Fatemiyoun militia members is at least 8,000, out of a total of more than 65,000 Iranian militias in Syria, which includes around 4,800 fighters of Syrian and other Arab and Asian nationalities engaged in combat in Homs and Hama countryside, as well as Raqqa, both areas are under the control of Syrian government forces.
Iraqi Shiite militias are classified as a terrorist organization by the United States. The Al-Nujaba Movement emerged after splitting from the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq group. The movement began sending fighters to battlefields in Syria in 2013, following the outbreak. According to a report by BBC Arabic, the movement deployed the Amir ibn Yasir, Al-Imam Al-Hasan Al-Mujtaba, and Al-Joulan brigades in Syria.
According to Eye of Euphrates, the Iraqi Al-Nujaba Movement operates in the Raqqa Badia, which is under the control of Syrian government forces and Iranian militias. Eye of Euphrates claimed that the Al-Nujaba movement has been involved in constructing a hidden underground tunnel network between the Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa provinces in the Syrian Badia.
Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq:
An Iraqi political group with an active military wing, formed by Iraq’s Shiite community after the ISIS takeover of Iraqi territory in 2014. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq operates within Iraq and also has a presence in Syria. The United States designated Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq as a terrorist organization in January 2020.
Hezbollah Lebanese Party:
Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria began in early 2012, and its presence in Deir ez-Zor was recorded since early 2016, where it participated in operations against the ISIS during the city’s siege. According to a report by Al Arabiya, Hezbollah does not disclose the exact number of its fighters in Syria, as it fluctuates based on the elements assigned to specific tasks and the nature of these missions. News sources have also claimed of Hezbollah’s presence in the Syrian Badia. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported last May about coordination between Hezbollah and Iranian militias in Homs province and its countryside, as Syrian government forces and National Defense units conducted a joint and extensive operation in the Syrian Badia from the Tadmur Badia to the Deir ez-Zor Badia, with the aim of combing the desert and targeting cells of the ISIS.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights published a report at the end of January 2023, discussing significant movements of dozens of members from Hezbollah and Iranian militias being transferred from Damascus to eastern regions, and to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Among these members were 125 individuals, including Iranian trainers and members of Hezbollah, as well as Syrian elements who received training from Hezbollah.
The ISIS in the Badia:
Syrian Badia has become the main stronghold of ISIS in Syria, from where ISIS operations are launched against the Syrian government forces, Russian forces, Wagner PMC forces, and Iranian militias, all of which have their main headquarters in the city of Palmyra in the heart of the Badia. According to Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, “the organization primarily uses the Badia as areas for hiding, spreading, and operational bases, launching attacks against the Syrian government forces and Iranian militias”. Shawakh pointed out that the prominent areas of the organization’s presence are concentrated in the Badia regions of Al-Rukhshad, Al-Rawdah, and Al-Hawl in Al-Hasakah, al-Bishri mountain in Raqqa, Al-Shula in Deir ez-Zor, and the Badia of Palmyra in the eastern countryside of Homs. ISIS reportedly have presence in Wadi Doubayat and Jabal Omour in Homs province as well as Faydat bin Muwaybah in Deir Ezzor province.
Areas of control in Syria at the end of 2021, showing the regions of ISIS presence - The image is from Salon Syria, captured by Syrian Archive on 18 June 2023
According to the analyst Saad Al-Sharaa, ISIS fighters are present in the Syrian Desert (which includes the regions of Al-Dabayat and Al-Sukhnah). This area is connected to the Anbar Desert in Iraq, which is the primary stronghold of ISIS.
Earlier this year, the Jusoor Center claimed in a report that ISIS no longer holds any military control over Syrian territory since February 2019. However, despite this, sleeper cells affiliated with the group have remained active, carrying out attacks against Syrian government forces, Russian forces, and Iranian forces.
North Press published an article on the activity of ISIS in Syria during the first quarter of 2023, reporting a 49% increase in the group’s activity during the first three months of the year. The article relied on North Press’s monitoring and documentation department as a source, stating that ISIS carried out 72 attacks in Syria during this period. Out of these attacks, 29 targeted the Syrian Democratic Forces, 23 targeted civilians, and 20 targeted Syrian government forces. ISIS claimed responsibility for 36 of these attacks. The attacks resulted in the deaths of 174 people, including 98 civilians, and injured 46 people, including 6 civilians. The attacks were distributed across the following regions: 36 in Deir ez-Zor, 12 in Raqqa, 10 in Homs, 8 in Hama, 4 in Al-Hasakah, 1 in Qamishli, and 1 in Aleppo.
According to a report by Deir Ezzor News Network and other sources, there have been reports of Syrian government forces present at the T3 pumping station. This has been confirmed through photos of soldiers at the station shared on their Facebook page. Additionally, the city of Al-Sukhnah is also reported to have Iranian-backed militias present, as mentioned in the section on “The military groups present in the region.”
Screenshot showing the distance between the Al-Dabayat area and the T3 pumping station and the city of Al-Sukhnah, where fixed bases for Syrian government forces are located. Captured and annotated by Syrian Archive from Google Earth on 21 July 2023.
The Economic Situation in the Region:
In 2023, the price of a kilogram of truffles ranges from 5 to 15 dollars, reaching up to 25 dollars in some varieties, depending on size and quality. According to a report by Tishreen newspaper, more than 600 tonnes of truffles have been exported, mainly to Gulf countries, between 25 March and 6 May 2023. While the head of Damascus Agriculture Chamber told al-Thawra newspaper the Syrian exports of agricultural materials in the first quarter of 2023 amounted to 72 million dollars, on top of which were truffles.
According to an article published in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, Manhal Barish claimed that security and military officers within the Syrian government consider the truffle season as one of their important resources. They have established economic networks with truffle traders, receiving a daily share in exchange for allowing the traders to search for truffles in areas under their control in the Syrian Badia.
The search for truffles requires security approvals from either the Syrian government forces or the Syrian Democratic Forces. Report from Al Jazeera in 2021 and another report from Syrian Television in the same year mentioned that checkpoints in Tadmur (Palmyra) and Al-Sukhnah have notified the locals about the necessity of regulating their truffle harvesting during specific times. Additionally, Iranian militias and Syrian government forces prevent the majority of people in Deir ez-Zor from searching for truffles, which they extract and sell themselves, due to the high price of the truffles.
It is claimed that the Syrian government and Iranian militias try to control the market. Officers impose restrictions linking truffle production to workshops under their control or levy taxes, which can reach up to 40%, as well as sharing profits from it. Despite facing dangers, such as mines scattered in the area or being killed in theft-related incidents, many locals truffle hunt as a means of livelihood.
Allegations about the possible responsible party:
Reports conflict regarding the party responsible for the incident in Al-Dabayat. While ISIS is accused by some as being responsible for the incident, many local sources and individuals from the Bani Khalid tribe, to which most of the victims belonged, believe that Iranian militias and the Syrian government forces were responsible for the killing of the truffle hunters in the Al-Dabayat area.
Allegations regarding the responsibility of Iranian militias and Syrian government forces for the incident:
The Sukhnah Al-Hadath page reported about the incident in Al-Dabayat that “the accused and the sole beneficiary of the attacks are the government and its security branches, as well as war profiteers collaborating with it,” and that the truffle workers “operate in groups affiliated with traders collaborating with the Military Security Branch in Palmyra”.
Amir Al-Hajji, the head of the Bani Khalid tribe council, demanded in a video, published by Mazen al-Khaledi account that follows the news of the Bani Khaled tribe, to hold accountable the officials he identified as traders from Palmyra (Hawidi and those behind him). He stated that what happened is a case of corruption. He described the truffle traders as “feudal lords” that seizes a quarter to a half of the truffle crop and do not allow hunting in the area until the truffle grows to become visible, then brings their own workers to the place to harvest it”.
Sheikh Safwat al-Khalidi, one of the sheikhs of the Bani Khalid tribe, in an interview with Orient TV, accused the Iranian militias of the incident, and the Fatemiyoun militia in the first place, denying “the responsibility of ISIS cells for the incident.”
A video was published of a condolence council held by the Bani Khaled tribe in Bab al-Hawa in Idlib countryside, which talked about the killing of 65 people, most of them from Bani Khaled, accusing the sheikhs of the tribe who were present, the Iranian militias, and the Syrian government forces for the incident.
The Advisory Council of the Bani Khalid tribe urged the residents of the area to exercise caution concerning the Syrian government and Iranian militias. They called on “human rights organizations to hold those responsible for the massacre accountable”, including Haj Huwidi from Al-Sukhnah and the head of the Badia branch, whom they alleged to be among the perpetrators.
Saad Al-Shaar, a Syrian political researcher, discussed in an interview on Al-Hawar channel the presence of Iranian militias in the area and their responsibility for the incident. Additionally, the Syrian Council for Change in a statement held the Fatemiyoun Brigade responsible for the killing of civilians, who were workers in Al-Kama’ah, in the Al-Dabayat region.
Photo of the statement by the Syrian Council for Change taken by Syrian Archive on 8 June 2023
Firas Alawi, the director of Sharq News website, spoke in a report published by Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed website about the difficulty of determining the party responsible for the incident. However, in his opinion, local sources closest to the event confirmed the responsibility of Iranian militias for killing of the truffle hunters in Al-Dabayat. A report published on Al-Quds Al-Arabi website also suggested the involvement of Iranian militias in the incident. The correspondent of Radio Al-Kul denied IS’ responsibility for the incident, stating that Iranian militias control the area.
Allegations of ISIS responsibility for the incident:
SANA, in addition to websites and activists, blamed ISIS for the incident. The Deir ez-Zor News Network reported a news article claiming to have “full details” about what happened in the Al-Dabayat area on 17 February 2023.
The news stated that “a group of 170 workers, led by Syrian Army and Internal Security Forces personnel in five trucks, headed to the Al-Dabayat area in the desert of Al-Sukhnah. During their work, they were attacked by large groups of ISIS militants who arrived on motorcycles armed with machine guns. The attack resulted in the killing of 53 individuals, including women and soldiers, and left many others wounded. Additionally, the attackers set four vehicles on fire and abducted the fifth one with its cargo. Some of the workers managed to escape and sought refuge at the nearby army checkpoints at Station 3. The army personnel worked to evacuate and secure them, transferring the injured to the hospital in Palmyra, and then to Al-Karam Al-Lawz Hospital in Homs”.
Syrian Archive checked the four issues of an ISIS magazine published in 2023; no confirmation or adoption of the incident was found. On June 25, ISIS released a 17-minute video containing mostly graphic footage from various attacks and execution claims. Among the footage, two large destroyed and burning trucks appear, in addition to a white car, which the video says are Syrian army trucks destroyed by ISIS fighters in Homs, without mentioning whether civilians or soldiers were killed in the incident. There is no indication of the date in the video, and Syrian Archive wasn’t able to verify that this footage is of the attack on truffle hunters near al-Sukhnah and trucks and vehicles in ISIS video don’t match the ones from February attack.
Screenshots of ISIS video shows several damaged and destroyed vehicles and trucks claimed to be attacked by ISIS fighters in Homs province. Captured by Syrian Archive on 21 July 2023
Allegations regarding the responsibility of truffle traders for the incident:
Amer Al-Hajji, the head of the Bani Khalid tribe in a video posted on Facebook by Mazen al-Khaledi, a Facebook account that is dedicated to news on the Bani Khalid tribe, accused traders in Palmyra of being responsible for the incident. Among them is a person referred to as “Huwaydi,” mentioned in a report by Orient TV after the incident as Huwaydi Al-Hassan. Additionally, three other traders were named: Abdul Karim Al-Hariri, Hassan Al-Aziz, and Muhanna Al-Suwayf.
The report stated that these four individuals prevent locals from extracting truffles except under their supervision, in exchange for receiving half or a third of the yield. It also mentioned that Brigadier General Malik Habib, the head of the Military Security Branch in Palmyra at the time of the incident, received over 300 million Syrian pounds from these activities in exchange for providing security protection to the truffle collectors.
Ain Al-Furat reported that the truffle revenues in the region are attributed to Brigadier General Malik Habib, the head of the Military Security Branch in Palmyra, while the civilians engaged in truffle harvesting and brokers are connected to a certain officer working in the same branch named Samer (nickname unknown). Al-Sukhnah Al Hadath Channel also reported that officers of the government and cooperating truffle traders are competing over the Syrian desert, which has witnessed several armed attacks and mine explosions against civilians entering the desert areas without security approval.
Brigadier General Malik Habib, originally from Jableh city in the countryside of Latakia, became the deputy director of the Air Intelligence on June 1, 2023. He previously held the position of head of the Military Security Branch in Palmyra before and during the incident. On 29 July 2021, he was included in the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s blacklist for his role in “crimes and violations committed by the Tadmur (Badia) Branch affiliated with Syrian Military Intelligence.”
Through research on Huwaydi Al-Hassan, Syrian Archive found a news report dated 5 February 2023, which was published by the Al-Sukhna Al-Hadath Facebook page. The report mentioned an explosion of landmines in a truck belonging to Huwaydi Al-Hassan Al-Ali, carrying families from Al-Sukhnah and its countryside who were harvesting truffles in the Muzariq area west of Halayhlah, between Al-Sukhnah and Tadmur in the Homs countryside. Al-Sukhna Al-Hadath shared a video of the damaged truck on the same day. The report claimed that Huwaydi Al-Hassan was injured in the mine explosion, causing damage to the vehicle, but he survived the incident.
The Al-Sukhna Al-Hadath page on its website mentioned other news claiming Huwaydi Al-Hassan’s involvement in smuggling small quantities of trucks loaded with vegetables and fuel to the Rukban camp, attributed to his connections with Syrian government forces.
Abdul Karim Al-Hariri:
News published by Syrian activist Wassim Zakour on his Facebook account where he mentioned the name of Abdul Karim Al-Hariri, claiming that he is responsible for shipping truffles to Damascus, other provinces, and Gulf countries. Syrian Archive could not find additional information about Abdul Karim Al-Hariri.
The official page of the Bani Khalid tribe, Al-Murawin, attributed the responsibility for the incident to unknown individuals. In a video released on 27 February2023, a person identifying himself as Fadi Ibrahim Al-Khalidi, the official spokesperson of the Bani Khalid tribe, denied holding anyone other than “terrorist groups” responsible for the incident. He emphasized that the statements published in the name of the tribe, which held Iranian militias responsible for the incident, were false and fabricated.
Due to conflicting reports and the lack of visual evidence regarding the perpetrator or the weapon used in the attacks, Syrian Archive was unable to confirm the identity of the individual responsible for the incident. However, allegations point to either Iranian militias or ISIS as potential groups behind the killings of truffle hunters.
Prior to the Al Dabayat incident, there were other attacks targeting truffle hunters in the region. Zain Al-Abidin’s post mentioned what he claimed to be a sequence of ISIS operations in the area during the month of February 2023, as follows:
1- 02/02/2023: NDF commander killed in Deir Ezzor
2- 05/02/2023: A soldier from Tartous killed near Palmyra
3- 07/02/2023: ISIS Failed attack near 11th Division checkpoint in Arak near Palmyra
4- 10/02/2023: SAA soldier killed in landmine explosion east of Palmyra
5- 10/02/2023: ISIS ambush in Athrya in Hama killed 3 truffle hunters
6- 11/02/2023: a massacre against truffle hunters in Marir near T3 Station
7- 11/02/2023: two ISIS attacks against a SAA base near Arak in Palmyra
8- 14/02/2023: one SAA soldier killed and one civilian kidnapped near Dwyzin in Hama, a first ISIS attack since 2021
9- 15/02/2023: attack against truffle hunters in Hama injured 3
Screenshot from Zain Al-Abidin’s post captured by Syrian Archive on 11 July 2023
Zain Al-Abidin’s Twitter account displayed, through two images, the attacks he claimed were carried out by ISIS in the area during the month of February, some of which targeted truffle hunters, and others targeted positions of the Syrian government forces and National Defense.
The first image from Zain Al-Abidin’s Twitter account shows what is alleged to be ISIS operations in the Badia Al-Sukhnah and its surroundings. The second image shows ISIS operations in Badia Hama. The specific locations in the images are indicated by the source. These images were captured by Syrian Archive on 11 July 2023.
After the Al-Dabayat incident, on 11 March 2023, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the killing of three truffle harvesters who were slaughtered with knives in the Badia Khansar area in Aleppo countryside, along with the abduction of 25 other individuals.
Furthermore, on 25 March 2023, 15 truffle harvesters were killed in the Badia Hama, including individuals affiliated with the Syrian government forces, as reported by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed website.
On 16 April 2023, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, in addition to other social media posts, that 32 truffle workers were killed in the Duwayzin area in Aqaribat Subdistrict, in the Badia Al-Salamiyah of Hama countryside. Among the casualties, there were at least 12 individuals affiliated with the National Defense militias.
Following the end of the truffle harvesting season, the North Press Agency published a report on its website, stating that at least 266 people were killed or injured due to war remnants, attacks, and explosions, including 205 fatalities (13 women, 164 men, and 28 military personnel).
Based on the information mentioned above, Syrian Archive was able to confirm an attack in the Al-Dabiyat area in the southern Sukhnah countryside, which is affiliated with the city of Homs, as well as an attack in an area near the Third Station (T3) and the city of Sukhnah. Syrian government forces, Iranian militias, and ISIS cells are active in the regions. The attack took place on 17 February 2023, between 13:30 and 16:18 local time and resulted in the death of at least 53 people, with the names of 24 victims identified. Additionally, seven individuals affiliated with the Syrian government forces and internal security forces were confirmed, six of whom were officers, five belonging to the Homs Police branch, and the sixth individual associated with the Homs Traffic Police Branch. The incident also caused material damage and car burnings at the location.
The lack of information available online about the incident hindered the ability to determine the identity of the potential perpetrator. However, conflicting reports, news sources, and eyewitnesses have attributed responsibility for the attack to both ISIS and the Fatemiyoun militia affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.