4 min read  | Damascus, Politics, Reports

Local brigades to step up as Islamic State withdraws from south Damascus


January 20, 2016

AMMAN: As the Islamic State prepares to withdraw from southern Damascus in coming days, small local rebel brigades have agreed to move in to its former stronghold of al-Hajar al-Aswad and sign a truce with the regime.

The largest brigade slated to take over al-Hajar al-Aswad is Duha al-Islam, which formed from two rebel factions that were driven out the town by IS in mid-2014, Duha commander Abu Nafia a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct Tuesday.

Other groups, including Liwa Suqur al-Jolan and Kataib Jund Allah, will also take control of the neighborhood, but it remains unclear how exactly the different brigades will divide up the territorial pie.

The rebel groups are slated to conclude a truce agreement with the regime, not a full reconciliation, Duha al-Islam commander Abu Nafia a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct Tuesday.

On Sunday, 20 of the group’s fighters entered the neighborhood but have yet to take over any military sites, said Abu Nafia.

Reports of the Islamic State’s imminent departure from south Damascus began circulating last December, when pro-opposition media reported that the regime and IS were negotiating a ceasefire that would grant the latter fighters safe passage from south Damascus to their territory in Raqqa.

By the end of the month, the two sides had reached an agreement for the Syrian army to take over areas abandoned by IS in southern Damascus, reported Russia Today on December 24.

Residents of al-Hajar al-Aswad refused that deal, said Abu Nafia. They wanted locals, either members of the Islamic State or rebels, to control the area.

Local representatives then negotiated with the Islamic State so that specific rebel brigades, made up mostly by al-Hajar al-Aswad residents, would take IS’s place following their departure, Abu al-Fida, a resident of al-Hajar al-Aswad who participated in the negotiations told Syria Direct Monday. (The rebel brigades’ fighters are primarily from the Golan Heights, as are most residents of al-Hajar al-Aswad, and include Duha al-Islam, Liwa Suqur al-Jolan, and Kataib Jund Allah, among others.)

After receiving Islamic State approval of the groups slated to take their place, Abu Fahd Meyyaza, an al-Hajar al-Aswad local formerly with Jaish al-Islam, secured regime approval of the power transition, said Abu al-Fida.

Duha al-Islam commander Abu Nafia confirms that the IS-rebel negotiations “were concluded with the regime’s agreement on those areas that IS would abandon and give to the rebels.”

State-owned media has already begun trumpeting al-Hajar al-Aswad as the beginning of a series of reconciliation agreements to sweep the capital before the Islamic State has even left.

“In 2015, we achieved a number of reconciliation agreements,” Ali Haidar, Syrian National Conciliation Minister, was quoted by state-owned SANA as saying on Saturday.

“The preparation for a big program will begin in al-Hajar al-Aswad as a model, but will extend to Babila and Yelda and Beit Sahm, reaching a-Diabiya towards al-Husseiniya on the one hand, and towards a-Tadamon and Yarmouk Camp on the other,” the minister said in the same article.

The endgame in south Damascus, says Abu Nafia, is for the regime to conclude truces with the rebel formations that move into al-Hajar al-Aswad and other areas of IS control, including parts of a-Tadamon and al-Asali, adjacent to al-Hajar al-Aswad.

The “final goal…is for IS to leave south Damascus, and for the regime to announce a truce with those rebel groups that will take over the areas,” the rebel commander said.  

Abu al-Fida, the al-Hajar al-Aswad resident who negotiated with the Islamic State, agrees: “we won’t undertake a reconciliation agreement with the regime that makes us into NDF fighters, but if there are truces [offered] we will agree as FSA brigades.”

The Islamic State has conducted four prisoner exchange deals with south Damascus rebels over the past two weeks, including Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar a-Sham, in preparation for leaving the area and handing it over to rebel brigades.

“The prisoner exchanges are intended to empty FSA-affiliated groups’ prisons, and those of IS, in preparation for IS’s exit from the area because it wants to free all of its detained members before it leaves,” commander Abu Nafia told Syria Direct Monday.

Waleed al-Agha, a journalist from Babila in south Damascus, agrees: “The prisoner exchanges between IS and the opposition brigades are connected to IS’s exit from south Damascus—they’re trying to take their prisoners with them.”

The latest prisoner exchange occurred Sunday between Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic State. An official JAI announcement Monday said the traded prisoners “had cooperated with IS and provided them with medical and other support, but were not involved in spilling innocents’ blood.”

A group of IS scouts has already departed from south Damascus in order to check out the agreed-upon exit route, said commander Abu Nafia on Monday.

“It’s expected that the group will complete its departure within the coming days.”

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