Assad vs. ISIS in Southern Damascus is the Culmination of the Regime’s Strategy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 4 May 2018

Devastation in Yarmuk refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria, 28 April 2018 (image credit: Omar Sanadiki, Reuters)

The 130th edition of Al-Naba, the Islamic State’s (IS) newsletter, was published on 4 May 2018. The main story on the first page was, “For the Second Week, Soldiers of the Caliphate in Southern Damascus Inflict Heavy Losses on the Nusayri Army”, and this continued on page 4.

Nusayri refers to the Alawi sect from which Syrian ruler Bashar al-Asad hails and is part of IS’s sectarian framing of its war. The story covers the fighting between the pro-Asad forces[1] and IS in the southern areas of the Syrian capital around al-Qadam, al-Hajar al-Aswad, Tadamun, and the Yarmuk Camp for Palestinian refugees.

For the Asad regime, this battle is the culmination of its consistent strategy, which it has on several occasions spelled out, to eliminate all opposition that is acceptable to local populations and the international community so that it can draw on their support, passive and active, in its war against the insurgency.

Asad’s war aim can be seen in regime resource allocation, which prioritises crushing the mainstream rebels, even at the cost of losing territory to IS. In December 2016, the regime lost Palmyra to IS as it attacked the final urban stronghold of the rebellion in Aleppo city. The current attack on IS in Damascus comes only after Asad crushed all rebels in the area—in East Ghuta most obviously; East Qalamun; and Yalda, Babila, and Bayt Sahem. These operations allowed IS to make gains in the capital itself (al-Qadam was taken by IS in March after the regime deported the rebels). Even after IS is defeated around Yarmuk it will still be more powerful than when Asad began these offensives because the diversion of resources by Asad’s battered regime has alleviated pressure on IS in Deir Ezzor, in the eastern deserts, which has provided them space to reconstitute.

Those who now point to these clashes as evidence of the enmity between Asad and IS miss the point; those who use the clashes to erase the last sixteen years of policy by the Asad regime—which has bolstered, supported, and manipulated the IS movement to destabilize Iraq, kill Western soldiers, and divide and discredit the Syrian opposition—do terrible violence to history in service of a murderous regime. Asad’s policy was not one of “friendship” with IS; it was one of strategic commonality. Both Asad and IS wanted to destroy any secular, Western-friendly armed oppositionists and leave Syria as a binary contest between the them. In southern Damascus, they got their wish.

EVENTS IN SOUTHERN DAMASCUS

After a week or so of build-up, the pro-Asad forces began an offensive into the IS-held pocket of southern Damascus on 19 April, beginning with days of relentless bombardment and a swift ground assault.

Within Yarmuk camp, there remained a small contingent of about 200 jihadists from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, until they reached a deal with the regime on 29 April. The deal involved HTS jihadists being moved from southern Damascus to areas in the north, and in exchange allowing the regime to remove the population, more than 1,000 people, mostly Shi’is, from the villages of Kafraya and al-Fua, which have been besieged by insurgents, including HTS, for many years. The inhabitants of Kafraya and al-Fua will be settled in regime-held areas of Aleppo. HTS also agreed to release prisoners taken during the offensives in 2015 that expelled the regime from Idlib. The deal was made directly between HTS and Iran, not involving Asad, nor, as some erroneous reports suggested, Russia. The deportation of HTS fighters from southern Damascus began on 30 April.

IS reported on 27 April that it had repelled a regime assault on al-Qadam, killing twenty soldiers, and killed eight more in al-Zayn holding off another regime attack.

It took the regime ten days and the deployment of its most elite forces to begin to break through against IS in southern Damascus. On 28 April, the pro-Asad forces captured the Madaniya area south of al-Qadam. In the face of this, IS retrenched, as it so often does, pulling back from the Badr Industrial Complex west of al-Qadam into the dense urban areas. IS withdrew from al-Qadam entirely on 30 April.

With HTS gone from its pocket in the north of the enclave, and al-Qadam lost, the fighting concentrated on al-Hajar al-Aswad. IS released one of its most gruesome picture essays yet, of a regime soldier in southern Damascus having an explosive strapped to his head and then being dropped upside-down from a building, triggering the device. On 3 May, the pro-Asad coalition claimed to capture the Munif School and then Bilal al-Habashi Mosque, effectively cutting the Hajar al-Aswad pocket in two.

This morning, fierce clashes have continued, with the regime bombarding al-Hajar al-Aswad and IS having killed several Iraqi Shi’a jihadists, who are part of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) militia network. Later, there was a sharp uptick in reported deaths among the pro-Asad forces after a failed effort to storm the Yarmuk camp, which killed many, if not all, of them.

NARRATION FROM AL-NABA

Turning to Al-Naba, the Islamic State claims it has killed 180 pro-Asad forces in the last fortnight, forty-four of them by sniper fire, and destroyed eight military vehicles and tanks.

IS’s newsletter claims that IS claims it “repulsed” an attack by pro-regime forces on the Joura (or Jawra) area of al-Qadam on 12 Shaban (28 April), killing six “apostates”, destroying three BMPs (Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty; “infantry fighting vehicle”), and burning an ammunition dump.

On 27 April, says Al-Naba, IS responded to an attack by the pro-Asad forces on the Zayn neighbourhood, launched from Yalda, which had been “handed over by the apostate Sahwat (Awakening)”. The rebel-held towns of Yalda, Babila, and Bayt Sahem around Damascus surrendered—in regime parlance, agreed to “reconciliation”— on 29 April, and in subsequent days the rebel fighters and large numbers of civilians were displaced to Idlib. On 28 April, IS attacked the “Awakening positions” at the entrance to Yalda. In these clashes, seven pro-Asad troops were killed, according to Al-Naba.

Simultaneous with the fighting in Zayn were clashes in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Al-Naba reports, where IS held its ground and killed fifteen pro-Asad soldiers.

Fighting escalated on the edge of Yarmuk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad on 30 April, Al-Naba claims, and thirty regimists were killed. On May 1, a “supporting detachment” (al-mufariz al-isnad) of IS shelled “a gathering of the Nusayri army on the outskirts of Yarmuk camp with mortars”, killing fourteen of them. This area was then ceded to the pro-regime forces by HTS, according to Al-Naba, under an “agreement with the Nusayriyya”.

In al-Hajar al-Aswad on 1 May, IS claims to have killed thirty-five regime soldiers. The fighting on 2 May in Yarmuk and al-Hajar al-Aswad involved the deaths of fifteen regime soldiers and the destruction of two tanks and a bulldozer, according to Al-Naba.

There was continued fighting in Tadamun and Yarmuk camp on 3 May, which resulted in the killing of sixteen pro-Asad soldiers, including a Lieutenant, Al-Naba claims.

UPDATES

After Al-Naba 130 was published, IS’s Nashir and Amaq News Agencies published further updates of the fight in southern Damascus.

Later on 4 May:

  • Nashir published a message from Wilayat Dimashq, “39 Nusayri Army’s Personnel are Killed and Others are Injured During Battles Towards the South of Damascus”, claimed that IS’s jihadists repelled the pro-Asad forces “on the axes of Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda town, and Yarmuk Camp”;
  • Amaq reported that “three Syrian soldiers were killed by sniper fire in Zayn neighbourhood and the outskirts of the town of Yalda in the south of Damascus”;
  • Two regime tanks were destroyed and a regime BMP was damaged on the edge of Yarmuk (Amaq);
  • A tank and a Shilka vehicle were damaged on the outskirts of Yarmuk (Amaq);
  • “More than 65 Syrian regime soldiers were killed during fierce confrontations with Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Yarmuk camp” (Amaq).

On 5 May, Nashir reported that “the soldiers of the caliphate managed to repel attacks by the Nusayri army on the axis of al-Hajar al-Aswad from the direction of the 30th Street. Fierce confrontations took place, using various weapons, which resulted in the killing of at least 25 apostates and the injury of many others. Likewise, the mujahideen managed to destroy a BMP vehicle during the confrontations”.

Amaq reported on 6 May that more than ten regime soldiers were killed as they tried to advance on Yarmuk camp, and Nashir published two photo-essays from Yarmuk. The first, “Executing Two Captured Nusayri Army Personnel in the Yarmuk Camp to the South of Damascus”, which shows two men in orange jumpsuits being made to dig their own grave, after which one is beheaded and one is shot dead. The second, “The Liquidation of Two Prisoners of the Nusayri Army”, shows two men shot sequentially in the streets.

It was reported elsewhere that Mahmud Hourani, a Hizballah commander, was killed in Syria on 6 May, and it is likely he was killed in the fighting in southern Damascus.

Nashir published another story in the final hours of 6 May, saying that twenty regime soldiers—later amended to thirty soldiers—were killed in an attempted attack on Yarmuk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad.

IS’s Wilayat al-Dimashq reported on 7 May that it had repelled an attack of regime forces and Iran’s Shi’a militias along two axis, in Tadamun and the Yarmuk camp, killing thirty-two of them and destroying a BMP. IS rather studiously ignored the considerable losses incurred on 7 May in al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Thirty-three more pro-regime soldiers were reported killed by IS on 8 May in fighting in Yarmouk. Whatever the truth of such figures, picture evidence was provided by IS for its claim on the same day to have murdered a captured “Nusayri” soldier with gunfire.

IS claimed to have downed a drone over al-Hajar al-Aswad as the fighting entered its fourth week on 10 May, continuing at an intense, house-to-house level. The pro-regime forces continue to struggle on the ground in Yarmuk, with narrow streets blocked by rubble getting in the way of tanks, and IS having laid ambushes for their troops.

Al-Naba 131 on 11 May contained an update on the Damascus battle on page 4, under the headline, “In Yarmuk and al-Hajar al-Aswad, the Nusayri army has been subjected to terrible massacres: the number of those killed since the campaign began exceeds 600”. IS claimed to have killed 640 pro-Asad fighters. Large incidents claimed in Al-Naba were: the killing of sixty-five regime coalition forces on 4 May in clashes on the outskirts of Yarmuk; the killing of fifty-two regimist troops on 5 May, “the seventeenth day of [the regime coalition’s] campaign”, around al-Hajar al-Aswad; and the killing of forty-eight pro-Asad troops around Yarmuk camp on 8 May. The last reported incident was the repelling of a regime attack on Yarmuk and al-Hajar al-Aswad on 9 May that killed twenty-three pro-regime forces.

12 May saw IS resistance give way in northern areas of al-Hajar al-Aswad to Liwa al-Quds, a pro-regime Palestinian militia.

In the western part of the Yarmuk camp, the pro-Asad coalition captured al-Masjid al-Quds (The Jerusalem Mosque) from IS on 14 May. It is believed about 300 pro-regime troops have been killed to this point, which suggests that the number of wounded could be near 1,000.

Amaq claimed on 15 May that the Islamic State has killed nearly fifty pro-Asad soldiers and destroyed two tanks in al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmuk camp.

Signs of IS’s lines beginning to crumble emerged on 17 May in al-Hajar al-Aswad.

Al-Naba 132 was published on 18 May, with a headline on the front page reading: “As the Malahim [Epic Battles] south of Damascus end their first month, the soldiers of the caliphate are thabitun [steadfast] and Jaysh al-Nusayriyya [the Nusayri army] is depleted”. “The soldiers of the Islamic State in southern Damascus fought for the fourth week against the Nusayri army and its militias in the Yarmuk camp, Tadamun, and al-Hajar al-Aswad, inflicting enormous human and material losses”, Al-Naba writes. “This week, more than 260 apostates were killed, and four tanks and vehicles were destroyed, bring the death toll in the Nusayri army to 900 since the start of the campaign”. This is after the “noteworthy” toll of 300 regime dead last week. Significant events reported by Al-Naba were that IS launched a counter-attack on 12 May, and IS also claims that the pro-Asad coalition lost fifty soldiers on 15 May, then lost thirty-six more the next day; if this is true, and representative of the rate of casualties, it suggests the damage to the regime coalition will take some time to repair.

The pro-Asad coalition bombed Yarmuk camp on 18 May, where, despite the incessant fighting, the frontline has been stagnant for about a week.

Pictures from Yarmuk on 19 May showed total devastation in an area where 200 people have died of starvation since the Asad regime imposed a siege in July 2013. Heavy fighting was ongoing throughout the day, until a ceasefire was announced late on as the regime coalition apparently prepares to deport the remaining IS jihadists to the areas of the caliphate they still hold around Hajin.

SOHR claimed on 20 May that “evacuations” of IS fighters and their families had taken place overnight in the Hajar al-Aswad, Tadamon, and Yarmuk areas, something Asad’s state media denied. This is the second time in two days that such an agreement between Asad and IS has been reported, and the second time it has been denied by the regime. It appears, however, that this time it is true: despite clashes continuing today, buses have arrived in the Yarmuk camp to transport IS’s troops into the Euphrates River Valley.

IS was cleared from the Yarmuk area and the regime took total control on 21 May—at which point, as usual, the looting of everything that had not been destroyed began.

On 21 May, “dozens” of pro-IS families were bussed from the IS-held enclave to the Rukban camp, the no-man’s land on Jordan’s border that has become a gathering point for refugees, a “very credible regime source” told Riam Dalati, a BBC reporter. Rukban is overseen to an extent by Jaysh Usud al-Sharqiya (The Lions of the East Army), a group of Deiri natives who have become an anti-IS force. This dangerous development was known about by the U.S. and Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra, another anti-IS force based at nearby al-Tanf, according to Dalati’s source, but they chose to stay silent.

The pro-opposition Neda Suriya (Syria Call) reported on 22 May that some of the IS jihadists removed from Damascus had been allowed too near to al-Suwayda, the Druze area of south-east Syria, and this had caused some anxiety—understandably, given how the Druze have been treated in areas ruled by jihadists. According to Neda Suriya, the total for IS fighters and their families allowed out of the Hajar al-Aswad/Yarmuk pocket was 800 people, and 300 non-IS fighters and civilians had already “accepted” deportation to Idlib.

Hours after the deportation of IS from Damascus, the jihadists launched an offensive against the pro-Asad forces in the Badiya that is said to have killed twenty-six regime coalition soldiers. The IS attack was near the famed Palmyra and Iranians were among the dead on the pro-regime side, according to SOHR.

*             *             *             *             *

Notes

[1] UPDATE The pro-Asad military units involved in the fighting in southern Damascus include the Iranian-constructed and -commanded National Defence Forces and Iranian-controlled Shi’a jihadists; for sure Lebanese Hizballah, as mentioned above, and Liwa Zulfiqar, a force originating within Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas, staffed by Iraqi Shi’i Islamists from Iran’s proxies in Iraq, notably Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizballah. Liwa al-Imam al-Husayn has been seen on the frontlines. It is likely other component forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are involved.

There are regular elements of the Asad regime involved in southern Damascus, including the Republican Guards and the Military Intelligence Directorate. Pro-regime auxiliaries like the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), an irredentist outfit heavily influenced by European fascism, have participated in the offensive, as has Quwwat Dir al-Qalamun (The Qalamun Shield Forces). The somewhat complicated Liwa Sayf al-Haq Asad Allah al-Ghalib (The Sword of Truth and Conquering Lion of God Brigade)—a Shi’i militia that appears to be an adjunct to the Republican Guards—has been seen in combat. On 26 April, after experiencing severe problems, an “elite” regime paramilitary, Quwwat al-Nimr (The Tiger Forces), led by the infamous Suhayl al-Hassan, was deployed in the Yarmuk area.

The most visible pro-Asad forces in Yarmuk have been Palestinian militias, a rare case where the regime coalition has constructed a force moulded to the local landscape, with notable participants being the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Liwa al-Quds, the Free Palestine Movement, the Palestine Liberation Army, Quwwat al-Jalil (Galilee Forces), and others such as Fatah al-Intifada, the Palestinian Struggle Front, and the Saiqa (Thunderbolt) Forces.

The only Palestinian unit to side with the insurgency was Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, the Syrian branch of Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya (HAMAS); the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) armed forces in Syria have remained neutral.

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