FSA rebels claim capture of key Islamic State territory in southeastern desert

AMMAN: Free Syrian Army rebels claim they captured “the main Islamic State strongholds” in southeastern Syria on Monday after the latter withdrew from its positions in the sparsely populated desert area.

The more than dozen towns, hills and fortified positions reportedly captured by FSA fighters in Outer Damascus and northeast Suwayda province on Monday were “bastions from which the Islamic State launched wide-ranging operations,” a military source from the FSA’s Forces of Martyr Ahmad Abdo told Syria Direct on Monday.

These areas, some of the longest-held IS positions in southern Syria, were also a lifeline for IS-linked faction Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW) in the Yarmouk Basin, roughly 80km southwest in Daraa province.

“Supplies would come from Deir e-Zor to Bir al-Qasab” in Outer Damascus, Saad al-Haj, a spokesman for the Eastern Lions Army, which is taking part in the battles, told Syria Direct on Monday, “and from there to Daraa” via smuggling routes.

The IS-held pocket in eastern Suwayda and Outer Damascus, near Syria’s border with Jordan, has been the focus of an “attrition strategy” by FSA brigades in the area since last August, the same source said.

 FSA fighters in formerly IS-held Rajm a-Dawlah on Monday. Photo courtesy of Free Tribes’ Army.

Alongside the Forces of Martyr Ahmad Abdo, the FSA’s Eastern Lions Army and Free Tribes’ Army are also taking part in the current operations, dubbed “We Have Saddled Up to Cleanse the Desert.”

All three factions have received support from Jordan and the United States, but Eastern Lions spokesman al-Haj told Syria Direct there had been “no coordination” with US-led coalition forces or air support in the most recent battles.

The main goal of the current fighting is “to cleanse the Syrian desert of IS,” Younis Salamah, head spokesman for the Eastern Lions told Syria Direct on Monday. The battles also aim to “break the siege of the [regime-blockaded] eastern Qalamoun and ultimately reach East Ghouta,” he added.

A parallel offensive was launched by FSA fighters in the regime-blockaded eastern Qalamoun Mountains in mid-March to capture IS territory there and link up with FSA territories nearby.

After months of battles, IS forces gradually withdrew from their positions in the southeastern desert over the past two weeks, rebels told Syria Direct.

 Free Tribes’ Army fighters in southeastern Syria on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Free Tribes’ Army.

While, on a map, the IS pocket in southeastern Syria is surrounded by regime- and rebel-held territory, IS fighters were able to leave through the vast, sparsely populated area “in individual cars and motorcycles,” the Ahmad Abdo military source said.

Pro-regime sources on social media reported that Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces had advanced into the same areas that rebels claimed to have captured on Monday, including Bir al-Qasab. Syrian state media did not immediately report an advance.

Three rebel sources denied a regime advance on Monday. Eastern Lions Army spokesman Salamah called reports of a regime advance “absolutely false,” adding “we would attack and repel the regime if it tried to advance here.”

Local Facebook news page Suwayda 24 reported that rebels captured positions near Bir al-Qasab, but also cited “sources close to the Syrian army” and reported that regime forces had advanced in the same area following an IS withdrawal.

Syria Direct could not independently confirm whether or not there was a parallel regime advance in the same area.

Eastern Lions spokesman al-Haj said that regime warplanes had hovered in the sky during Monday’s battles, “without bombing.”

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-Falouji

Originally from Daraa province, Mohammed studied economics at Damascus university. He was an active participant in the activism of the Syrian Revolution in 2011 and 2012. Later, Mohammed reported for Syrian media outlets including Orient News.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.