Shelling in south Damascus as ‘zero hour’ approaches for anti-Islamic State operation

AMMAN: Government forces exchanged artillery fire with Islamic State fighters in the Syrian capital on Tuesday, hours after the extremist group reportedly rejected an offer to leave south Damascus, the only section of the city that remains outside state control.

Syrian government forces began bombing the Islamic State (IS)-held Yarmouk camp in south Damascus shortly after midnight on Tuesday, resident Mohammad Hamada, told Syria Direct. “The bombing lasted for about two hours,” he said.

At the same time, IS fighters positioned in Yarmouk fired shells into nearby government-held areas of Damascus, the National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary organization that supports the Syrian military, and local media organizations reported. IS shelling reportedly killed one resident of the a-Zahira al-Qadeema neighborhood.

Ammar al-Qudsi, an activist from Yarmouk who currently lives in the neighboring Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held town of Yalda, told Syria Direct that he heard shelling continue into Tuesday afternoon.

Pro-government forces move toward south Damascus on April 8. Photo courtesy of Sawa Masyaf.

Tuesday’s violence began after a Syrian government-affiliated delegation entered the IS-held Yarmouk camp on Monday to negotiate for the militants’ exit from the area, the Action Group For Palestinians of Syria (AGPS)—a London-based monitoring group with correspondents inside the camp—reported. IS rejected the offer, according to the group.

The IS-held Yarmouk camp, home to approximately 3,000 people, is part of a larger section of south Damascus that Syrian government forces first encircled in mid-2013. Control of the besieged area is split between IS, a handful of FSA-affiliated factions and a small number of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) fighters.

Following the Syrian government’s capture of the East Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus in early April, Russian-backed talks regarding the fate of the FSA-held towns in south Damascus—Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem—accelerated. “What happened in Ghouta is a glimpse into the future of south Damascus,” rebel negotiator Abu al-Fida a-Dimashqi told Syria Direct last week.

Recapturing south Damascus would put Bashar al-Assad’s government in full control of the Syrian capital for the first time since the war began.

Government military reinforcements began to arrive to south Damascus last week, Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik reported. Syrian forces intend to conduct “a decisive military operation” against the Islamic State there, Sputnik said, citing an NDF commander.

“Zero hour” for that operation is approaching, pro-government daily al-Watan reported on Tuesday, noting that a number of IS leaders had fled the pocket. Syria Direct could not independently verify the report.

Abu al-Fida a-Dimashqi, an FSA commander and negotiator in south Damascus, said opposition factions in towns such as Yalda and Babila would have “no part” in any operation against the Islamic State.

“We will only hold our positions along the frontlines with Daesh [IS] and prevent them from entering,” the commander told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Ahead of an expected military operation, residents of IS-held territory are leaving through a crossing that between the Yarmouk camp and FSA-held towns “every day,” Yalda-based activist al-Qudsi told Syria Direct.

With additional reporting by Mohammad al-Haj Ali.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.