Thousands of civilians flee IS-held south Damascus during intensified pro-government campaign

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians have fled the encircled, Islamic State-held southern neighborhoods of Damascus in recent days, a UN official said, as Syrian state media reported “intensified” airstrikes there on Wednesday amid a campaign to “retake and secure” the entirety of the capital.

More than 5,000 civilians have fled the Islamic State (IS)-controlled Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus since the Syrian government launched an intense air and ground campaign against IS fighters there last week, a United Nations official told Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Wednesday.

At least 85 airstrikes and 30 barrel bombs landed in the IS-controlled neighborhoods of south Damascus on Wednesday, Qais a-Shami, a citizen journalist based in neighboring Free Syrian Army (FSA)-held town of Yalda, told Syria Direct. A-Shami and other activists in FSA-held towns immediately east of Yarmouk Camp have taken to rooftops in recent days to monitor the aerial assault and count airstrikes.

Syrian state news outlet SANA reported that the pace of airstrikes increased on Wednesday, adding that fighting would continue until the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) “takes full control” of south Damascus.

Smoke rises after pro-government airstrikes in south Damascus. Photo by Maher Al Mounes/AFP.

Syrian government forces first encircled south Damascus—a collection of towns, villages and the Yarmouk camp—in mid-2013. Control of the besieged area is split between IS, a handful of FSA-affiliated factions, Jaish al-Islam and a small number of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) fighters.

The Syrian government launched a major offensive in south Damascus on Thursday evening, with pro-government warplanes and helicopters launching airstrikes and dropping barrel bombs in the IS-controlled western districts of the besieged pocket, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Ground forces, comprised of Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers and pro-government militias, also launched a simultaneous attack on IS positions on the perimeter of the encircled area.

Since then, intense bombardment and ground fighting has left major swathes of south Damascus in ruins, recently displaced people tell Syria Direct, as thousands of residents in the IS-controlled western districts flee into the FSA-controlled east.

‘We didn’t sleep’

Sami Nabilsi hid with his family in an underground shelter in Yarmouk camp for three full days before fleeing to neighboring Yalda this past Saturday. All that time, “we didn’t eat and we didn’t sleep,” Nabilsi told Syria Direct on Wednesday via Facebook.

“We knew that the regime would take the area,” Nabilsi said. “Even if they have to destroy it entirely.”

Nabilsi and his family are currently taking refuge in a school in Yalda that has been converted into a temporary shelter for those fleeing bombings and fighting in neighboring IS-held territory. Though he is safe, he says his thoughts remain with his relatives—including his mother and father—who  remain in Yarmouk.

“We can’t get in contact with our family and make sure they’re safe,” Nabilsi said. “It’s very difficult to hear a bomb fall—you think it could kill someone in your family.”

Thousands of homes have been destroyed in south Damascus since the pro-government campaign began last week, the UN official said.

Pro-government airstrikes and artillery shells killed as many as 30 civilians in Yarmouk Camp on Tuesday, the pro-opposition Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS) reported on Wednesday.

AGPS, which has personnel on the ground in Yarmouk, said no hospitals or medical clinics have been operating in the camp since the pro-government campaign began last week.

Activists in south Damascus recorded more than 1,000 airstrikes on IS-held south Damascus in the past six days alone, citizen journalist a-Shami told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The latest escalation began following the reported breakdown of negotiations between the Syrian government and IS for the latter to leave south Damascus, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Syrian soldiers near frontlines with the Islamic State in Yarmouk Camp. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now.

Negotiations continue between rebels in the besieged pocket’s FSA-controlled eastern district and the Syrian government, one opposition negotiator who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Representatives from both sides have yet to reach a final agreement, the negotiator said, adding that he believes any coming ceasefire deal is likely to have “the same terms” as evacuation deals in East Ghouta that saw thousands of rebel fighters and civilians depart for the country’s opposition-controlled northwest.

Pro-government warplanes also launched dozens of airstrikes and artillery shells at rebel positions and buildings on the outskirts of Yalda in recent days, activist a-Shami said.

One pro-government airstrike hit a position controlled by Jaish al-Islam near Yalda on Tuesday, the rebel faction said in an official statement distributed on social media Wednesday, killing 10 fighters.

At least 180 civilians and fighters have been killed across south Damascus since the pro-government offensive began last Thursday, the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday.

In government-held neighborhoods in south Damascus, mortars reportedly launched by IS forces killed five civilians on Tuesday, SANA reported.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.