Exclusive: South Damascus Residents Facing Displacement amid Ambiguity on ISIS Fate

Exclusive: South Damascus Residents Facing Displacement amid Ambiguity on ISIS Fate

Thursday, 19 April, 2018 - 08:45
Opposition fighter in Al-Yarmouk Camp (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Damascus - Asharq Al-Awsat
With the end of the presence of armed opposition forces in eastern Ghouta, the Syrian Regime forces and their allies are currently preparing to “resolve” the situation in some southern areas of Damascus, which are still out of their control, as part of efforts to secure the capital and its surroundings.

Areas dominated by the Syrian opposition factions are likely to witness the same situation seen in other regions, including forced displacement of fighters and their families, while ambiguity surrounds the fate of ISIS-held cities.

The besieged southern regions of Damascus, with the eastern region of Kalamoun, are the last two strongholds of the armed opposition, ISIS and Nusra Front in the vicinity of the capital, after the regime and its allies regained control over most of Damascus’ cities and towns.

The Southern Gate

The southern part of Damascus is divided into five main areas, the largest of which are Yalda, Babila and Beit Sehm, which are part of Rif Dimashq governorate and located in the southeast of the capital. The area is bordered to the north by Yarmouk Refugee Camp and Al-Tadamoun neighborhood, to the south the area of Sayeda Zeinab, which is controlled by Iranian militias, to the east Damascus’ Ghouta, and to the west the Black Stone area.

The region stretches over four square kilometers and was dominated, seven years ago, by Islamic factions and members of the Free Syrian Army.

These factions signed a truce agreement with the regime in February 2014, after they expelled ISIS and Nusra Front to the Black Stone and Yarmouk camp. Since then, these towns have been relatively calm, under a siege imposed by the forces of the regime. Only civilians are allowed to go to the capital and return to their towns almost daily through the Babila-Qazzaz crossing.

In September 2015, factions including Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra signed a cease-fire agreement with Hezbollah in the towns of Fuaa and Kafriya in the countryside of Idlib, which are inhabited by factions supported by Iran, as well as Madaya and Zabadani in the countryside of Damascus. However, Russian intervention at the end of the same month froze the agreement.

Few months later, the agreement was revived and covered other regions as well.

In April 2017, the first phase of the agreement was implemented, as 8,000 civilians and fighters of Al-Fua and Kafriya were evacuated. The second phase - which entails the evacuation of the rest of the two towns and the displacement of Nusra militants and their families from Yarmouk camp – has not been completed so far.

During the recent Astana meetings, which brought about agreements to establish de-escalation zones in Syria, the factions attempted to annex the towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Semh to the de-escalation zone agreement in eastern Ghouta. Iran refused the proposal on the grounds that these areas in southern Damascus were part of the agreement covering the towns of Fuaa, Kafriya, Zabadani and Madaya.

These towns are currently densely populated, as their residents have refused to leave, and a large number of people from nearby areas (Black Stone, Yarmouk Camp, Al-Tadamon neighborhood) have resorted to the region, fleeing ISIS.

The Stronghold of ISIS

The Black Stone area is administratively affiliated to Rif Dimashq. It lies on the south of the capital and is bordered to the north by the Yarmouk refugee camp, to the west by the Damascene neighborhood of Al-Qadam, to the east by the town of Yalda and is about 7 kilometers from the center of Damascus.

Before the war, the Black Stone population was estimated at 60,000, most of whom were displaced from the Golan Heights in 1967. The area has also a mixed Syrian population and Palestinian refugees.

Many of the residents have joined the peaceful opposition movement, and later formed armed factions affiliated with the Free Army, mainly the Black Stone Brigade and the Golan Falcons.

The Black Stone was then dominated by different armed factions, under different agendas and slogans. Radical factions prevailed over the Free Army, whose members disintegrated or joined Nusra Front and ISIS.

A struggle for influence between Nusra and ISIS has ended with the later expelling Nusra members to Yarmouk camp.


The Capital of the Palestinian Diaspora

The third area is the Yarmouk refugee camp, which is administered by the governorate of Damascus and is located around seven kilometers south of the capital. It is also known as the capital of the Palestinian Diaspora, as it comprises 36 percent of Palestinian refugees in Syria.

The area witnessed military chaos due of the existence of different armed groups, working under different agendas and slogans.

Nusra Front and Al-Aknaf formed the two most powerful factions in Yarmouk and managed to end the presence of many other factions, taking full control of the camp throughout 2014.

In April 2015, ISIS intervened and supported Nusra to get rid of Al-Aknaf, which had around 250 members. Suddenly, in April 2016, ISIS launched an aggressive attack on Nusra in Yarmouk and took control over 80 percent of the area previously dominated jointly by the two groups.

With ISIS controlling the Yarmouk camp, many civilians were forced to leave to areas dominated by the Free Army in Yalda, Babila and Beit Sehm, while only 4,000 civilians remained in the camp.

The Example of Diversity

The fourth area is the southern part of the Tadamon neighborhood of the Damascus governorate. It is strategically important, being the southern gate between the capital and its countryside. It is connected by Yarmouk Camp from the west and Yalda from the east and the south. In the north, it is bordered by the regions of Al-Zahra and Daf Al-Shawk.

The neighborhood was an example of diversity in Syria, where the population, before the beginning of the crisis, was estimated at 200 thousand, forming a social fabric that included residents from the Golan Heights, the governorates of Suweida, Idlib, Deir Zor, Daraa, Latakia and Tartous.

In November 2012, after the militarization of the civil movement, factions of the Free Army swept through the southern part of the area, forcing the displacement of the majority of its population.

When ISIS took control over the largest part of Yarmouk camp in April 2016, it also dominated the southern part of Tadamon neighborhood, while the factions retreated to the towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sehm.

Al-Qadam

The fifth area is the Al-Qadam prominent neighborhood, one of the oldest Damascene neighborhoods around the capital’s old city. Located in the south of the capital, it is bordered to the north by Al-Midan, to the south by Sabina, to the west by Daraya and to the east by the Black Stone.

Since the beginning of the militarization of the civil movement, the area has witnessed clashes between the Free Army and the regime forces, leading to the displacement of most of the residents and the complete destruction of the infrastructure.

The Al-Qadam district consists of two sections: one is located west of the Damascus-Daraa old road and the other east of the international road. The Free Army dominated most of the two sections at the beginning of the revolution, but the regime later managed to regain control over the western section.

Like in many opposition strongholds, the regime recently managed, following a gruesome siege on the neighborhood, to impose a “settlement” agreement in March, by which fighters and their families were driven from the area to the north of the country. However, ISIS swept through areas previously controlled by the opposition factions, killing dozens of regime fighters.

Increasing Pressure

In conjunction with the military operation launched by the regime and its allies in mid-February on the cities, towns and villages of Ghouta in eastern Damascus, which led to the displacement of more than 200 thousand fighters and civilians to the north of the country and the control of the regime over the region, the regime and its Russian ally have always maintained that their next objective was the region of south Damascus.

According to local sources from Yalda, Babila and Beit Sehm, representatives of the regime and its Russian ally have intensified their visits to the region and held several meetings with the opposition factions, threatening to invade the area if they did not accept “settlement” agreements similar to those implemented in Ghouta.

In addition, the regime demanded that those wishing to leave the region should not be deported unless they participate in fighting ISIS in the Black Stone, Yarmouk Camp, Tadamoun neighborhood and Al-Qadam, according to the sources.

In the midst of these limited options, factions are divided between those who want to stay in the region to prevent Iranian militias from imposing their control, and those who refuse to engage in the fighting against ISIS and to be exploited by the regime.

Crowds and Ambiguity

The regime has been strengthening its military presence in the area, as a number of vehicles, military equipment, buses and trucks carrying members of the regime’s army and loyal militias were seen last week in the vicinity of regions controlled by ISIS.

However, some observers believe that the scenarios of ending ISIS presence in the south of Damascus were unpredictable.

“The scene is surrounded with many ambiguities,” they say, noting that the regime was well aware of ISIS’ weak points in that area, and hence “will not allow the organization to impose its conditions, even if such scenario required a military intervention.”

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