Syrian army 3km away from recapturing west Damascus suburbs

AMMAN: The Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russian airpower, hundreds of barrel bombs and thousands of artillery shells, is three kilometers away from seizing the last rebel enclave of in the west Damascus suburbs, opposition military sources told Syria Direct on Sunday.  

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched a military campaign last month to capture a refugee camp in Outer Damascus, which is controlled by Ahrar a-Sham, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades stationed outside of the camp.

The campaign aims to drive rebel forces from the Khan a-Sheh Palestinian camp and its surrounding villages—the last opposition-held towns in West Ghouta—to “cut supply lines and uproot” armed groups, pro-regime news outlet al-Masdar reportedon October 1.

Khan a-Sheh, located 25km southwest of the capital, also lies in the middle of the Salam highway, which links Damascus to Quneitra. The camp is the only part of the highway under rebel control; by taking the Khan a-Sheh, the SAA would establish full control of the highway and eliminate rebel presence in West Ghouta.

At the start of the campaign—in its 44th day as of Monday—regime forces completely encircled Khan a-Sheh and neighboring towns and subsequently began assailing the camp, home to 12,000 Palestinians and 800 displaced Syrians, with hundreds barrel bombs, missiles and artillery fire. These residents inside the camp are civilians who are not involved in combat, according to a statement released by camp residents on October 11, the Palestinian Refugee Portal reported the same day.

 A reported 48 barrel bombs hit Khan a-Sheh on November 10. Photo courtesy of Khan a-Sheh Media Center.

“Since October 1, we have recorded 94 airstrikes, 710 barrel bombs, and thousands of artillery shells that have hit the camp and its outskirts,” Abu Muslim a-Derani, a councilman inside of Khan a-Sheh, told Syria Direct.

Regime forces have dropped at least 50 additional barrel bombs and launched a dozen missiles on the camp since November 9, local media reported on Monday. 

Backed by Russian airpower, Assad’s fighters have tightened their ring around Khan a-Sheh and are now less than 3km outside the camp.

“The battles are back-and-forth, but right now the regime is making gains,” Ahrar a-Sham spokesman Osama a-Shami, who attributes the regime’s success to Russian military assistance, told Syria Direct on November 10.

“We know the Russians are advising them because the Syrian military does not have this kind of expertise,” said a-Shami. “They’re using modern military weapons and tactics, like reconnaissance planes and overflights, to storm the area.”

The regime’s strategy of simultaneous encirclement and bombardment is not new.

In recent months, the regime has used this tactic, dubbed “kneel or starve” by opposition activists, to successfully expel rebel forces from the Damascus suburbs of Darayya, Moadamiya, al-Hameh and Qudsayah.

‘Flames of Hermon’

On November 9, in response to the regime’s advancement, Ahrar a-Sham formed a joint operations room between other rebel factions that control West Ghouta, with the aim of regaining lost territory.

The same day, Ahrar a-Sham, Ajnad a-Sham and Jabhat Fatah a-Sham launched the “Flames of Hermon” military offensive, opening a new front west of Khan a-Sheh in order to relieve pressure on the camp’s rebels.

“Flames of Hermon” aims to break the regime’s siege of opposition-controlled Beit Saber and Beit Jinn—which border Quneitra and sit at the base Mt. Hermon—and eventually open a road between Damascus and Quneitra, pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi reported last week.

 On November 13, an airstrike destroyed a mosque and nearby homes. Photo courtesy of Khan a-Sheh Media Center.

“We plan to recapture the areas where the SAA has advanced, re-connect the villages in West Ghouta and break the siege of Khan a-Sheh,” said Ahrar spokesman a-Shami.

Right now, the regime’s 68th Armored Brigade controls land between Khan a-Sheh and the Mt. Hermon towns.

Amidst the on-going clashes and shelling, a regime negotiations committee visited Khan a-Sheh to discuss a truce, pro-regime al-Watan reported on November 10.

The negotiations are strictly between rebels and the regime and do not include the local council, since there are no armed groups present in the Palestinian camp, said councilman a-Derani.

Until now, the negotiations have not been successful.

“There is no relationship between the negotiations and the situation on the ground, as no agreement has been reached, ” said Ahrar a-Sham spokesman a-Shami. 

“The regime’s proposal is clear—leave or it will destroy the area,” said a-Shami, echoing the terms of other ceasefire agreements in Outer Damascus.

Although regime attacks are concentrated on farms at the edge of the camp where opposition brigades are stationed, airstrikes appear to be targeting civilian areas inside the camp.

In October, residents and aid organizations operating in the camp told Syria Direct that rebel fighters are not allowed inside of the camp.

That same month, camp residents demonstrated against the bombings and released a statement declaring that “no [rebel] military presence” exists within the camp, the Palestinian Refugee Portal reported on October 11.

Over the past 44 days, Russian and regime airstrikes have killed dozens of Palestinians, targeted residential areas, destroyed the camp’s only hospital, hit a mosque and bombed a Civil Defense center, Khan a-Sheh Media Center reported this month.

At night, camp residents sleep in shelters to avoid Russian warplanes, said Khan a-Sheh councilman a-Deirani.

“People aren’t afraid of the artillery fire, but they are scared of Russian warplanes, which bomb residential areas at night,” he added. 

‘Camp of Return’

Before the war, Khan a-Sheh was home to more than 30,000 refugees, whose families fled there in 1948 from northern Palestine. Residents called it the “Camp of Return,” since it was the closest camp to Palestine, Mohammed Abu Jafar, a Palestinian citizen journalist inside the camp, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Although more than half of the camp’s original residents have fled throughout the course of the Syrian war, other Palestinians, such as Abu Jafar, have chosen to remain.

Some residents, said Abu Jafar, have stayed for financial reasons, or because they are wanted by the Syrian government or even to avoid military service with the Palestinian Liberation Army, which the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria reported is fighting alongside the SAA to seize the camp.

“Other residents are holding on to their homes—their place of birth—and trying not to repeat the same mistake they made by leaving Palestine,” he said.

In recent weeks, activists in Khan a-Sheh have told Syria Direct that the camp residents consider themselves neutral in Syria’s five-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Nevertheless, some people are considering leaving, said Abu Jafar, should the regime seize control.

“We all know what the regime’s position is on political activists, journalists and recue workers,” said Abu Jafar.

Earlier this year, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that from the start of the revolution, the Syrian government has followed a “systematic pattern of mass arrests,” by detaining activists, residents of opposition-controlled areas, defectors, relatives of suspected armed fighters and people providing medical care to the opposition.

If the Syrian Arab Army gained control of the camp, for citizen journalists at least, fleeing would be “inevitable,” said Abu Jafar.

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.

Malek Hafez

Malek is originally from Damascus and moved to Jordan in 2013. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Middle East University in Jordan.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.