A ‘war of crossings’ in south Damascus as checkpoint closure cuts off encircled districts

AMMAN: The only crossing into an encircled, rebel-held southern Damascus enclave is closed for a second day on Monday, local opposition officials and a civilian told Syria Direct, leaving thousands of residents trapped.

Since mid-2013, Syrian regime forces have maintained at least a partial encirclement of roughly 20 square kilometers of the southern suburbs of Damascus, controlling who and what comes in and out through a checkpoint on the northeastern perimeter of the enclave.

The encircled area—4km south of the capital’s Old City—is itself split in half, with the western districts of al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam and Yarmouk camp primarily held by the Islamic State (IS) and the eastern suburbs of Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem held by a handful of Free Syrian Army (FSA)-aligned rebel groups.

Those two areas are connected by a single checkpoint, meaning that goods only enter IS territories from FSA territory and only enter FSA territory through a regime checkpoint.

On Sunday, Syrian regime forces closed the only checkpoint leading into the FSA-controlled territories, essentially cutting off the entire south Damascus enclave from the outside world, Farouq Abu al-Kheir, a former member of the FSA area’s governing council told Syria Direct from Yalda.

Why close it now? In recent days, the Syrian regime had asked rebels in Yalda to close the FSA-held checkpoint leading into the Yarmouk camp, known locally as the Aroubah crossing. That move would have put the area under a siege within a siege.

If rebels refused to comply, Abu Ahmad, a commander for the FSA’s Aknaf Beit a-Maqdis brigade in Yalda told Syria Direct, they were told that their own crossing would be closed: Babila, the sole checkpoint leading out of the area and into regime-held greater Damascus.

“This is the opening through which all of our basic necessities enter,” Abu Ahmad said.

Afraid of losing their own lifeline, rebels complied with the order and shut down the Aroubah crossing on Saturday, leaving the neighboring, IS-held Yarmouk enclave totally sealed off from both regime and opposition territory.

In Yarmouk, the impact was felt immediately, residents told Syria Direct, as prices soared and worried locals bought up all the supplies they could find, leaving markets bare.

Civilians in FSA-held Yalda, many with family and friends on the IS-held side of south Damascus, heard what was happening there and put pressure on local rebel brigades, who relented and reopened the crossing.

When they did, regime forces responded by “immediately” closing the Babila checkpoint leading into the FSA area, said former council member Abu al-Kheir. Now, all of south Damascus is cut off, FSA and IS districts alike.

People cross from Yalda to Yarmouk on Nov. 5. Photo courtesy of Revolution’s Spring.

A local rebel militia spokesman in Yalda, in the FSA side of the pocket, and a civilian inside IS-controlled Yarmouk both confirmed Sunday evening’s closure of the Babila crossing to Syria Direct. Syrian state media outlet SANA did not report on the crossing.

Both the the Yalda and Yarmouk sides of the encircled zone remained completely shut off from surrounding regime-held territory on Monday. Vital food and medical supplies now have no way to enter either of the two neighboring enclaves, and residents are barred from leaving.

A third crossing, known as al-Qadam, is located along the westernmost reaches of the IS-held pocket, within a district under FSA control, but was closed two weeks ago for unknown reasons, one resident there told Syria Direct. Pro-opposition news site Enab Baladi also reported the closure of the al-Qadam crossing between IS and FSA territories last month. Even so, few supplies entering via al-Qadam when it was open reached past the FSA area and into adjacent IS-held towns.

Sunday was not the first time that the crossings relied upon by south Damascus residents to get supplies were closed. Last month, IS sniper fire from Yarmouk into neighboring opposition-held Yalda prompted the joint IS-and rebel-held Aroubah checkpoint there to close for several weeks, residents and officials told Syria Direct.

But Sunday’s shutdown of the regime-run checkpoint into FSA territory in Babila is due to political, rather than the usual “security” reasons, Yalda-based citizen journalist Dhiaa Mohammad told Syria Direct on Sunday. “There’s no legitimate humanitarian excuse for it.”

The Babila crossing in October. Photo courtesy of Revolution’s Spring.

Three FSA-aligned factions in south Damascus are included in a Russian- and Egyptian-backed de-escalation agreement aimed at halting violence across greater Damascus that wasannounced last month in Cairo. The agreement also covers the encircled, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs immediately northeast of the capital city.

Under the month-old deal, the checkpoint leading into Yalda was to remain open for aid to reach the rebel enclave, Egyptian news outlet al-Masry al-Youmreportedat the time.

The roughly nine square kilometers under Islamic State control south of the Syrian capital were not included in last month’s de-escalation deal for south Damascus, and today the checkpoint into Yalda remains closed—raising questions of what exactly the deal was meant to accomplish in the first place.

Fighting in the encircled southern Damascus suburbs is largely waged between FSA and IS forces, with little, if any, military involvement from the Syrian regime. Continued light artillery and sniper fire between IS and rebel militias falls outside the framework of last month’s deal.

With the Babila crossing closed, by Monday evening, supplies of sugar and flour had already “disappeared” from markets in the rebel-held towns on the eastern side of encircled southern Damascus, local pro-opposition news site Revolution’s Spring reported.

Watching from his home in the mostly-IS-held district of al-Qadam where he lives with his wife and young daughter, resident Mahmoud a-Shami says all he feels today is exasperation as a series of crossings that control his and his family’s livelihoods change hands.

“This has become a war of crossings,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s like [watching] a game of hide-and-seek.”

 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.