Islamic State closes in on Damascus

While ISIS continues to cap­ture world’s attention, in the background, collapse of Assad’s Syria continues, village by village, town by town.

Islamic State (ISIS) flag in Yarmouk Street

2015/09/04 Issue: 21 Page: 9

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

ISTANBUL - For more than 18 months Islamic State (ISIS) mili­tants have been angling for an entry point to cen­tral Damascus from the southern suburbs. Often they have occupied streets and districts — the Yarmouk Palestinian camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad, for exam­ple — that unlike districts held by less extreme rebel groups have been spared Syrian government air strikes and shelling.

On several occasions, residents of ISIS-controlled districts have said ISIS did not sweep into the area as a result of any battle or gov­ernment withdrawal but that it had been there from the start, meaning local men formerly aligned with the Free Syrian Army became radi­calised and simply switched sides.

Now ISIS has entered a section of Qadam, a district south of Da­mascus formerly controlled by a different rebel group, placing ISIS in an area of critical strategic im­portance.

Before the revolt, Qadam stood out from the colourless city sub­urbs by being home to the Syrian capital’s single functioning train station on a line running between Aleppo and Jordan. It was also a bustling transit point from where travellers from southern Syria dis­embarked.

For the most part, however, the recent history of Qadam mirrors so many other disaffected, forgotten suburbs in President Bashar Assad’s Syria. With few residents working in formal employment and many migrants displaced by the crippling drought in eastern Syria moving to Qadam, it quickly became an area of opposition to the regime. It was pummelled by government forces after rising up against the regime in early 2011. Today it stands among a ring of decimated Damascus dis­tricts.

The recent incursion is not, as some reports have indicated, the closest ISIS has come to reaching central Damascus proper but it is important for other reasons.

First, Qadam straddles the high­way linking the capital to the en­tire southern region, where a mix of rebel groups have steadily been taking territory from Assad check­points and military installations.

Only two kilometres to the north is the Damascus southern ring road, the only highway that passes through the city proper and a vital conduit for the movement of re­gime forces and supplies from mili­tary bases west of Damascus to bat­tlefields in northern Syria. In the area directly north of Qadam, the highway is raised several metres above ground meaning replacing a section, were it to be destroyed, would be a major and lengthy un­dertaking.

Second, should ISIS actually de­cide to take on Assad’s forces, the sprawling Mezzeh airbase lies a half dozen kilometres to the west. Assad’s forces at the airbase have been laying siege to nearby De­raa for several years but were ISIS to attack the base from the east, it would not be unimaginable to envisage the airbase, one of the capital’s most important lines of defence, folding.

However, given that Qadam has been in the hands of rebel groups for two-and-a-half years lessens the significance of the ISIS incur­sion.

A Syrian military figure told Agence France-Presse he was “very happy” that ISIS and the Ajnad al- Sham Islamic Union, an association of rebel groups in control of much of the district, are now fighting among themselves.

Though ISIS’s latest push into Damascus certainly merits close observation, there is arguably a more important series of events taking place in the Hama plains. There, a group of Alawite sheikhs have decided to refuse regime forces access to several villages be­cause during recent clashes, gov­ernment troops fled, leaving locals to fend for themselves.

So while ISIS continues to cap­ture the world’s attention, in the background the collapse of Assad’s Syria continues, village by village, town by town.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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