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ISIS encroaches on
east Damascus

The Army of Islam and the FSA's First Brigade launched a battle to "eliminate" ISIS' s presence in the area.

Eastern Damascus. (AFP/Abd Doumany)

BEIRUT – ISIS has ramped up its presence in northeastern Damascus, prompting rebels to launch a campaign against the group in the strategic area, which has witnessed relative calm in past months amid localized ceasefires.

 

On Thursday, the two largest rebel groups in eastern Damascus announced an offensive against ISIS, two weeks after the group dramatically escalated its operations in the capital with an advance into the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.

 

“Following numerous transgressions perpetrated by [ISIS] in the Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh [districts of Damascus], we declare the start of the battle against this organization,” the First Brigade said in a statement.

 

The FSA-affiliated group was joined by the Army of Islam, which controls large areas of the nearby Eastern Ghouta suburbs and is the most powerful rebel organization operating around Damascus.

 

The Army of Islam wrote on Twitter that it had begun an operation to “eliminate the presence of ISIS” in both Qaboun and Barzeh. It also claimed it had killed four ISIS members and taken 20 others prisoner.

 

The northeastern quarters of Damascus occupy a key strategic high ground linking the capital with the Qalamoun mountain range to the north as well as the rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta suburbs.

 

Rebels operating in the area in mid-2013 threatened to breach the regime’s defensive lines around central Damascus, but pro-government forces pushed them back, and in mid-2014 a system of localized ceasefires was established, neutralizing the northeastern quarters.

 

Battlefield balance

 

Fighting began in northeastern Damascus Wednesday at dawn with small skirmishes that saw ISIS take up defensive positions in the city's Tishreen neighborhood, according to London based daily Alaraby Aljadeed.

 

“In the evening opposition forces attacked the area where the ISIS militants had fortified themselves, and fierce clashes broke out between the two sides,” the newspaper reported.

 

The fighting intensified Thursday, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reporting that clashes had raged between rebels and Islamist batallions on one side and ISIS on the other along the outskirts of Qaboun and Barzeh, leading to casualties on both sides.”

 

Pro-opposition Eldorar cited activists as saying that four ISIS members were killed and dozens of others injured while two civilians, including a woman, were killed in the fighting.

 

“Sources confirmed that the clashes are ongoing and that the FSA controlled Barzeh-Tishreen Hospital road was closed after the clashes with ISIS [spread to the area],” the outlet added.

 

Meanwhile, the Army of Islam’s official spokesperson Islam Alloush told Syria Mubasher that his group and the First Brigade had seized two ISIS headquarters in the Tishreen quarter.

 

“The aim of the joint operation is to uproot ISIS and not leave a single foothold for them in Damascus and its environs.”

 

As-Safir, in turn, cited Army of Islam sources as saying that the group had taken control of half of ISIS’s strongholds in the area. However, sources in ISIS told the Lebanese daily that they had repulsed the attack.

 

ISIS expansion

 

The new rebel offensive comes as ISIS has sought to grow its presence in the Syrian capital after losing ground in northern Syria and Iraq’s Tikrit, with the Yarmouk offensive being the latest example of its ambitions.

 

In recent days, ISIS started showing off its presence in eastern Damascus, with its “State of Damascus” media apparatus releasing pictures of masked men training in a purported camp in Qaboun.

 

On Friday, Alaraby Aljadeed reported that, in February, ISIS had no more than 50 fighters in Qaboun; however, the daily added, the group has recently bolstered its forces and now has approximately 200 fighters in the neighborhood.

 

“ISIS entices [recruits] with money: each young man is given a monthly salary ranging from $200 to $300 as well as monthly food packages [to encourage him] to join a training camp run by the group,” local activist Omar Abdul-Salam told the paper.

 

The recent ISIS operations come after the group suffered a serious setback in Damascus in mid-2014 when an Army of Islam-led coalition routed the group in Eastern Ghouta, leaving it with a minimal footprint south of the capital.

 

ISIS became relatively dormant over the ensuing months, but in late 2014 the militants’ “State of Damascus” media apparatus began to release reports of its activities in the Hajar al-Aswad district south of the capital, from which it launched its early April offensive into Yarmouk. 

Rebels are locked in fierce fighting with ISIS in northeastern Damascus. (AFP/Abd Doumany)

Following numerous transgressions perpetrated by [ISIS] in the Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh [districts of Damascus], we declare the start of the battle against this organization.