De-escalation falls flat in south Damascus as Islamic State, FSA exchange fire

AMMAN: The international de-escalation agreement covering the southern Damascus suburbs is bringing no real end to violence there as rival opposition and Islamic State forces from two neighboring enclaves battle over a stagnant frontline for a second straight day on Monday, sources on the ground told Syria Direct.

Free Syrian Army fighters in the south Damascus district of Yalda exchanged light artillery fire and sniper rounds with Islamic State (IS) fighters in the neighboring Yarmouk camp on Monday, Dhiaa Mohammad, an activist in Yalda, told Syria Direct.

“We haven’t seen clashes this intense in a long time,” said Mohammad.

Sporadic gunfire between the Islamic State-controlled Yarmouk camp and FSA-held territory immediately to the east is not new. Snipers—on both sides—regularly shoot at one another across the frontline dividing the two neighboring, regime-encircled districts.

What is new is the intensity of the fighting this past week, as well as FSA accusations of an Islamic State chemical attack late Sunday night against rebel fighters stationed in Yalda.

Shells “thought to contain toxic substances, possibly chlorine gas” allegedly hit FSA fighters in Yalda Sunday night during clashes along the frontline there, a source from the FSA-aligned Aknaf Beit a-Maqdis militia told Syria Direct on condition on anonymity. He estimated 10 of the FSA fighters were injured in the attack.

The Yarmouk camp in south Damascus on Sunday, photographed by Liwaa Sham a-Rasoul.

A spokesman for Yalda’s opposition-run health department told Syria Direct on Monday he doubted the accusations of a chlorine attack.

IS did not comment on the alleged chemical attack.

The latest clashes intensified in recent days after IS snipers reportedly shot at both civilians and FSA fighters within Yalda, Omar Qaisar, an activist inside the Yarmouk camp told Syria Direct.

An agreement announced earlier this month in Cairo is meant to curb fighting between opposition and regime forces, in order to ensure a modicum of calm in the capital’s outskirts. Backed by Russia and Egypt, the deal includes three FSA factions present within the Yalda enclave. The deal is part of a wider de-escalation agreement meant to halt fighting across the Damascus suburbs, including the encircled, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs northeast of the capital.

The roughly nine square kilometers under Islamic State control south of the Syrian capital were not included in this month’s de-escalation deal for south Damascus.

Fighting in this part of Damascus is largely waged between IS and the FSA—with little to no show of force by the regime. Little has changed on the ground since the de-escalation deal went into effect, as attacks by IS against the FSA fall outside the framework of the newly enforced ceasefire.

An FSA-aligned fighter along the south Damascus-Yarmouk frontline on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Revolution’s Spring.

Muhammad Aloush, political leader of Jaish al-Islam, one of three factions that signed the agreement, announced the deal earlier this month in Cairo. The agreement calls for regime-held checkpoints surrounding Yalda to remain open and for aid to reach the rebel-held enclave, opposition Egyptian news outlet al-Masry al-Youm reported at the time. Further details of the agreement, such as the duration and exact areas it covers, remain unclear.

The Yarmouk camp is one of the Islamic State’s smallest, most isolated pockets of control within Syria. A former Palestinian refugee camp later absorbed by metropolitan Damascus, Yarmouk today is largely shut off from the outside world. Aid supplies rarely enter the district, and it is usually difficult to speak to the thousands of civilians still trapped under IS authorities there, just four kilometers south of the regime-held Damascus Old City center. One activist, Omar Qaisar, who spoke to Syria Direct from Yarmouk, said his own family has survived on just lentils, rice and bulgur, a type of grain, for the past 18 months. 

The sole crossing out of Yarmouk leads to an equally small, encircled pocket of opposition territory immediately to the east. There, Free Syrian Army militias reign over a handful of suburbs—including the town of Yalda, which borders the Yarmouk camp.

But today that crossing is closed, sources on the ground told Syria Direct, amid the intensified clashes along the Yalda-Yarmouk frontline.

“Of course, the closure has a huge negative impact on residents in the Yarmouk camp,” Qaisar told Syria Direct.

“Life is very difficult right now for people. My own family is among them.”

 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

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.