Parking lots, factories become battlegrounds as rebels try to link northeast Damascus strongholds

AMMAN: Rebels made small advances against regime forces Tuesday after launching an offensive earlier this week to take control of a disputed Damascus neighborhood that lies adjacent to the opposition's territory east of the capital, sources on the ground tell Syria Direct.

Using bomb-laden cars and fighters clad in suicide vests, at least two Islamist factions launched the “surprise” offensive against Syrian regime forces early Sunday morning, hoping to capture all of Jobar district, currently split between rebel and regime control, in east Damascus. Jobar, within the capital’s city limits, marks the beginning of rebel-held territory in the east Damascus suburbs.

Though participating factions Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, Failaq a-Rahman and the Free Syrian Army initially gained ground on Sunday, seizing a bus depot and an electricity station in Jobar, which is now largely abandoned after years of battles, regime forces unleashed punishing airstrikes and mortar fire, slowing the advance and retaking ground. Jobar’s southeastern industrial district is now the frontline of ongoing clashes.  

The offensive—dubbed “Worshippers of God, Remain Steadfast”—comes as rebel forces lose strongholds elsewhere in Syria and brings them close to the Old City of Damascus.

Two kilometers of a strategic regime-held highway run through Jobar, connecting Damascus to regime military bases on the city's northeastern outskirts, as well as Homs and Hama further north.

Jobar also divides the rebel-held enclave of East Ghouta from a smaller pocket of three opposition-controlled neighborhoods just across the M1 highway. At their closest point, the two pockets are just 500 meters apart, separated by Jobar’s regime-held northern district.

For rebels in besieged East Ghouta, one of the opposition’s last remaining urban strongholds in the country, seizing Jobar means ensuring the flow of vital food and medical supplies to its half a million residents via underground tunnels from the three neighborhoods of Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh.

For civilians in need of basic supplies, the tunnels from those three neighborhoods are “the lungs of Ghouta,” citizen journalist and Qaboun resident Abu Qutedia al-Qabouni told Syria Direct as Monday’s losses threatened to shut down the tunnel network. “Opening a path to Qaboun and Barzeh is protection for Ghouta.”

Further losses on the Jobar battlefront could mean tightened regime encirclement over both rebel pockets, where years-long sieges have left residents hungry and untreated for easily preventable diseases. 

Fighters from the Islamist Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham group, a merger between Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and other factions, alongside Failaq a-Rahman fighters, launched a “surprise” attack on the neighborhood early Sunday morning, Wael Alwaan, a Failaq a-Rahman spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday.

‘Surprise attack’

Rebels appeared close to crossing the M1 highway on Tuesday afternoon, as fighters edged toward the Abbassiyeen Plaza and a nearby bus depot in Jobar’s southern industrial district.

Videos posted online on Tuesday showed Ahrar a-Sham fighters inside a Jobar textile factory and purportedly shooting at regime forces.

Rebel forces had reportedly “fire cut” Firas al-Khoury Street adjacent to the M1 highway by Tuesday, arriving “just steps away” from Qaboun and destroying two regime tanks, Abu Wissam a-Dimashqi, a citizen journalist in Jobar told Syria Direct.

Tuesday’s clashes come after regime forces on Monday retook positions that were lost the previous day, including a “sweets factory and a group of factories along the M1 highway,” another citizen journalist in Jobar, who wished to remain anonymous, told Syria Direct.

The Syrian army recaptured buildings seized by “terrorists and affiliated groups,” Syrian state media outlet SANA reported on Monday. “All members of the terrorist groups that infiltrated the area were eliminated and their equipment was destroyed.”

The fighting included “many types of weaponry,” said a-Dimashqi, the media activist in Jobar, “including artillery strikes.”

Sunday morning saw rebels, including Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham fighters armed with suicide vests and bomb-laden cars, “take control over several areas” of Jobar and “fire cut” the M1 highway crossing through the neighborhood, essentially blocking regime forces’ movement along the thoroughfare, Wael Alwaan, a Failaq a-Rahman spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday.

  Failaq a-Rahman fighters in Jobar on March 19. Photo courtesy of Amer Almohibany/AFP.

“The battle was dependent on surprising the regime,” Alwaan said. “The rebels took advantage of this shot to advance and take control over several areas completely.”

Pictures posted online showed HTS fighters reportedly seizing a central bus depot and an electrical power station in Jobar.

The battle comes after weeks of regime surface-to-surface missile and mortar shell attacks on the opposition-held neighborhoods of Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh, located on Damascus’ northeastern outskirts and surrounded on all sides by regime territory.

Together, the three neighborhoods form a small enclave, linked less than one kilometer to the east to the rebel-controlled East Ghouta suburbs by a system of underground tunnels beneath regime territory.

Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh all signed informal ceasefires with the regime in early 2014, which held, amid sporadic clashes, until last month. Despite the regime’s encirclement of the area and its tight control of goods passing through checkpoints, children could return to school, university students could leave to attend classes in downtown Damascus, the regime provided water and electricity.

But the regime’s closure last month of all entry points into the three neighborhoods mean that the underground smuggling route quickly ran dry, as smugglers within the enclave have run out of supplies to bring into East Ghouta via the tunnels. Recent regime bombardment is also raising fears that the small enclave—and its network of tunnels—could soon cut off completely.

It wouldn’t be the first time that besieged East Ghouta has lost a major source of sustenance. When regime forces seized the fertile Marj region, to the south of East Ghouta, last May, the tunnels helped soften the impact of the loss by allowing rebels to smuggle food into the suburbs.

Now, losing access to Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh would be a major blow to the opposition in East Ghouta, severing a “crucial lifeline for East Ghouta” and allowing the regime to “tighten its siege” on the area, citizen journalist Star a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct last month.

Regime response

Syrian and Russian warplanes reportedly unleashed dozens of airstrikes over Jobar throughout the clashes in recent days, activists on the ground told Syria Direct. By Tuesday afternoon, there were “35 airstrikes on residential areas of Jobar,” Abu Wissam a-Damashqi, a media activist in the neighborhood told Syria Direct.

In addition to dozens of Syrian airstrikes and mortar fire on the frontlines in Jobar, at least 14 airstrikes targeted East Ghouta, killing 13 civilians and wounding dozens more, Mahmoud Adam, a Civil Defense spokesman in East Ghouta said on Monday. The bombings continued over East Ghouta throughout Tuesday.

“We’re constantly seeing planes in the sky,” Adam said on Monday, as fighting raged nearby in Jobar’s industrial district. “This is hampering our work as members of the Civil Defense because we simply cannot cover every neighborhood and evacuate the injured. Those who are injured risk dying because we are experiencing delays.”

 Jobar on Tuesday, filmed by a Failaq a-Rahman drone.

By Tuesday afternoon, the dead included at least one child and a Civil Defense emergency responder, according to the Civil Defense’s Facebook page.

Syrian state media did not report the airstrikes, but Syrian regime forces “repelled an attack launched by Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists,” as rebel groups launched “rocket shells” on nearby regime-held neighborhoods, Syrian state media outlet SANA reported on Tuesday. Syrian warplanes “pounded” Jobar and several neighborhoods in East Ghouta on Monday, Russian state-run news site Sputnik reported.

Weeks of regime bombardment over Barzeh, Tishreen and Qaboun, have destroyed about 85 percent of Tishreen and 60 percent of neighboring Qaboun, Eyad Abu al-Joud, head of the Syrian Civil Defense in eastern Damascus, told Syria Direct earlier this month. 

Just one kilometer away from the battles, in East Ghouta, residents are “very afraid,” said Abu Saleh, a civilian who withheld his exact location. “The security situation is chaotic near the highway, and business today is very slow.”

“We’re just staying put and watching the situation.”

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.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

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.

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.