AMMAN: Syrian government forces announced they seized full control of the southern districts of Damascus on Monday, one month after launching an air and ground offensive against Islamic State fighters there.
The Syrian Arab Army “took control over the Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad,” a spokesman for the General Command of the Syrian Army and Armed Forces announced in a press conference in Damascus on Monday afternoon.
The capture of south Damascus from the Islamic State (IS) “completely eradicates the most vicious contingents of the terrorist groups...in addition to guaranteeing the safety of the capital and its countryside,” continued the spokesman.
The capture of south Damascus from IS marks the full return of the capital and its countryside to the control of Bashar al-Assad’s government for the first time since the beginning of the Syrian war.
A Syrian Arab Army tank enters the Yarmouk camp in south Damascus on Monday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.
Russia’s Hmeimim Military Base in Syria said government forces “successfully gained total control over the regions south of the Syrian capital after a bloody battle with the extremist fighters,” in a statement posted to social media on Monday.
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and allied milias launched a ground and military offensive against the last IS holdout districts south of the capital on April 19, Syria Direct reported at the time.
However, despite daily airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes, SAA and allied forces soon became entrenched in the dense urban landscape of south Damascus, making slow progress.
Monday’s reported SAA capture of south Damascus came in the wake of reports that IS fighters were evacuated from their positions in the capital over the weekend under an agreement with government forces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, claimed in a report on Monday that 1,600 IS fighters and their families were evacuated from south Damascus in the preceding two days and taken to the Syrian Badia, a desert expanse in country’s east where IS still maintains a presence.
One spokesman for a Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel faction in the Badia told Syria Direct on Monday that his forces had monitored the arrival of buses allegedly carrying Islamic State members. Syria Direct could not independently verify the spokesman’s account.
“The new arrival of Daesh [IS] fighters to the Badia threatens the entire region,” Said Saif, a media spokesman for the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Bado Brigade, told Syria Direct. The Islamic State has previously exploited the sparsely populated Badia region to move supplies and launch attacks in Syria’s south and south east.
A spokesman for the Action Group for Palestinians in Syria (AGPS), a London-based monitoring group with correspondents in south Damasus, confirmed reports of an evacuation of IS fighters in conversation with Syria Direct on Monday.
Syrian soldiers in the Yarmouk camp on Monday. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.
Syrian state media agency SANA denied reports of any evacuation deal between IS and the Syrian government on Saturday. The outlet reported on Monday that the departure of buses from south Damascus the night before was part of “an evacuation of women, children and the elderly during a temporary ceasefire enacted [Sunday] evening for humanitarian reasons.”
A media spokesman for Liwa al-Quds, a Palestinian militia that participated in the SAA’s anti-IS offensive in south Damascus, told Syria Direct on Sunday that reports about a government-coordinated evacuation of IS were “not true.”
The media spokesman refused to comment on the government capture of IS-held districts south of the capital on Monday.
Syrian government forces and allied militias had encircled and besieged south Damascus since 2013.
The Islamic State took control of al-Hajar al-Aswad in late 2013, using the district as a staging ground for attacks against Syrian rebel factions in the adjacent Yarmouk camp before capturing most of it in 2015.