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IS approaches Damascus

September 4, 2015

The Islamic State has entered the relatively stable Damascene suburb of Al-Qadam from their positions inside the city of al-Hajar al-Aswad, killing a number of Islamist rebel fighters from Jaysh Al-Islam (Army of Islam) en route to staking their claim at the southern axis of these two areas near Damascus.

IS’ presence in Al-Qadam is serious threat to the Syrian capital, as the terrorist group is now within a few hundred meters of the Syrian Arab Army’s positions inside this Damascene suburb that was once in the process of reconciliation before negotiations were placed on hold due to increased violence in the neighboring district of Yarmouk Camp.

Until now there was an uneasy calm in these areas and the Syrian armed forces have refrained for some time from carrying out attacks on the Islamist rebels of Jaysh Al-Islam and Ajnad Al-Sham despite prior hostilities that plagued the civilian population and forced a diaspora to Damascus’ Old City neighborhoods.

For the Islamist rebels, the loss of Al-Qadam’s southern sector could have an adverse affect on their current counter-assault in West Ghouta, as IS’ potential targeting of their weak defenses in the southwestern countryside of these collection of farms located between Damascus and the Golan Heights will create chaos among their ranks.

IS selfie 2

Following is an article in As-Safir with further details:

Abdallah Suleiman Ali  As-Safir

The Yarmouk camp scenario is playing out once again in the al-Qadam neighborhood south of Damascus. IS (Islamic State) has stormed the neighborhood and makes rapid progress, while other factions are reeling back from the shock.

It seems that the sleeper cells, the secretive pledges of allegiances and the vague stances have become part of the flaring scene south of the capital.

On August 31, IS advanced in al-Qadam and took control of about half of the area, including al-Assali, which is the eastern part of the neighborhood near the al-Hajar al-Aswad area — the stronghold of the organization south of Damascus for almost over a year.

IS also advanced toward the city of al-Madaniyah, where clashes are flaring in Arnaout Street in the vicinity of the Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman mosque. The group has made clear progress and has trapped some of the Ajnad al-Sham fighters, demanding them to surrender if they wish to be safe.

Ajnad al-Sham remains positioned in about six neighborhoods that are yet to fall under IS control and is trying to prevent the organization’s advance.

The clashes are not limited to al-Qadam, as IS is also spreading in the al-Zayn neighborhood separating al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda, where battles are raging between IS and Jaysh al-Islam.

Similarly, in the al-Tadamon neighborhood, battles are raging between the Ababil Houran Brigade plus Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and IS.

yarmouk camp 1

There are also clashes on the outskirts of the Yarmouk camp to the side of the Cultural Center overlooking Yalda between Jabhat al-Nusra and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis in Yalda (which is supported by Sham al-Rasoul). This suggests that southern Damascus, where settlements have been ostensibly reached with the Syrian army, is teetering on the brink of the abyss, and resulting losses are likely to be immense should things continue down this path.

The al-Qadam neighborhood was the last area in southern Damascus that signed a settlement agreement with the Syrian army in August 2014.

According to the agreement, militants ought to be deployed in the western side of the neighborhood only. However, the agreement did not provide for putting down arms, nor did it stipulate that militants are allowed to go out to settle their matters, as was the case in other areas.

Despite the settlement, one must say that the al-Qadam neighborhood was not actually under the control of the Syrian army, as it remained controlled by the armed factions. The Syrian army is deployed in some checkpoints only, most importantly in the neighborhood entrance to the side of Nahr Esh, and another checkpoint on Daraa highway. The Syrian troops are heavily present in the Sbeneh neighborhood, near al-Madaniyah.

The Syrian army forces stationed in this area have been on full alert, mobilizing troops on the demarcation lines with the neighborhood.

Syria destruction 06 2015

There have been indications that the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union has been controlling the al-Qadam neighborhood, while the strongholds of al-Nusra are located nearby. IS members were clearly present in al-Assali, in addition to some cells that have secretly pledged allegiance to the group and played a role in facilitating its storming into the area.

The situation is really bad. IS is advancing amidst the collapse of Ajnad al-Sham, especially in Arnaout Street, as the organization managed to trap them,” a source from al-Assali told As-Safir.

Regarding the al-Nusra stance vis-a-vis these developments, the source confirmed that the group “stood on the sidelines and did not intervene in favor of any party. It sought to conclude an agreement between the two sides, but the deal was canceled only hours after being signed.”

In the al-Qadam neighborhood, al-Nusra took a different stance than in Yarmouk camp, where it was allied with IS,” the source added.

However, this raises many questions as to the reasons behind al-Nusra’s vague stances in southern Damascus, while its branches in other Syrian areas make no secret of their hostility toward IS.

There has been news about the desertion of about 150 fighters under the command of Saleh al-Zammar from IS to join the ranks of Ajnad al-Sham, after he heard some of the organization’s leaders talking about capturing women in the neighborhood.

However, the source confirmed that Zammar did not pledge allegiance to IS, but was presenting himself as such to preserve his interests.

The number of IS fighters in southern Damascus is estimated at 2,000 militants, mostly stationed in al-Hajar al-Aswad, which was overtaken by IS last year following its withdrawal from other southern Damascus areas that have entered into a settlement with the Syrian army, such as the towns of Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem.

About 300 IS militants were involved in clashes in al-Asali, while the number of Ajnad al-Sham fighters is estimated at about 250 militants.

al-Nusra withdraws

A media activist in the Yarmouk refugee camp, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told As-Safir that he has been noticing over the past few months the increasing number of fighters joining IS, especially after the group increased the wages of the men joining its camp. Each fighter is being paid now about 80,000 Syrian pounds [426 US$], which is prompting many young people to fight in its ranks even if not convinced of its ideology.

The recent clashes broke out against the backdrop of the assassination of Abu Malik al-Shami, the commander of Ajnad al-Sham, and the subsequent hostilities that led to the death of one of the IS fighters who was accused of the assassination. However, all indications suggest that the attack comes as a continuation of previous steps, whereby IS has been trying to consolidate its presence in the vicinity of the capital, as happened previously in the Yarmouk camp.

The ongoing developments in the al-Qadam neighborhood are critical, especially in case IS manages to take control of the entire area, which is located less than two kilometers away from the capital and only five kilometers from the Umayyad Mosque. Moreover, IS control over the neighborhood would mean that the Daraa highway will be within its range of fire, and thus it will cut off supply lines for the Syrian army. Many believe that this highway is no less important than the Damascus International Airport.

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