ISIS makes gains in Syria as it loses ground in Iraq
Beirut -T he Iraqi army, heavily reinforced by Iranian-backed Shia militias and US air power, is pushing Islamic State (ISIS) militants out of territory they conquered in 2014, but, in neighbouring Syria, ISIS seems to be gaining ground in an offensive on Damascus that may be linked to a new rebel push in the south.
On April 9th, ISIS fighters were reported to be less than 3 miles from the palace of embattled President Bashar Assad as they overran an estimated 90% of the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk, which over the years has become a southern suburb of the capital.
ISIS stormed battle-ruined Yarmouk on April 1st, after infiltrating fighters into the camp, reportedly with the help of the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
After two weeks of fierce combat, Palestinian officials reported on April 16th that ISIS withdrew from Yarmouk to its nearby stronghold of Hajar al-Aswad after defeating the Palestinian Aknaf al-Maqdis group, the jihadists’ main foe in the camp – and left Al-Nusra fighters in control.
Al-Nusra and ISIS frequently fought each other during Syria’s 4-year-old civil war but have worked together several times as a powerful jihadist force. If they are now collaborating to the extent they seem to be by establishing a foothold in south Damascus, the regime should be worried.
The push into Yarmouk was ISIS’s most significant advance into the capital and it could give the group a big boost and no doubt attract many recruits despite its recent setbacks in Iraq, where the Pentagon says the group has lost 25-30% of the territory it has overrun since the summer of 2014.
Yarmouk, the southern gateway to the capital, was set up in 1957 by refugees most of whom had fled the Galilee region of Palestine after it was taken over by the Israelis. When the Syrian war began, the shantytown, roughly 8 sq. kilometres, hosted some 200,000 Palestinians. Most of those have fled, mainly to Lebanon or other parts of Syria.
Only an estimated 15,000 remain and they were trapped in the fierce house-to-house fighting between ISIS and the regime with its dreaded helicopter-borne barrel bombs, another catastrophe in an arc of conflict that has produced the biggest humanitarian crises since the second world war.
The assault on Yarmouk is seen as part of an ISIS drive to establish a major presence south of Damascus, all the way to the Deraa region on the border with Jordan.
The ISIS push into Yarmouk “represents the strongest ISIS encroachment into southern Syria thus far”, Jeffrey White and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed in an April 10th analysis.
US-based Arab analyst says the “attack on Yarmouk is part of a broader and alarming campaign by ISIS to establish a strong presence in the south of Syria. It’s attempting, with some considerable success thus far, to expand its footprint in Syria even as it’s slowly being rolled back in Iraq.
There has been no significant sign that the minority Alawite regime in Damascus is in imminent danger of collapse but, despite some successes a few months ago, it seems to be on the back foot now.
On March 25th, Assad lost the southern city of Basra al-Sham. Three days later in the north west, Islamist rebels led by al-Nusra, and calling themselves ‘the Army of Conquest’, overran the provincial capital of Idlib after heavy street fighting.
Then on April 1st, the pro-Western Free Syrian Army seized the last official border crossing to Jordan at Jaber, cutting off a vital economic artery for the Damascus regime.
With large-scale military support from the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Lebanon’s battle-hardened Hezbollah and Shia fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan, pro-regime forces still hold most of the capital as well as a swathe of central and northern Syria.
Russia is providing weapons and high-powered diplomatic support for Assad, while Iran is providing financial and military support. This, along with the West’s blundering, has contributed greatly to the regime’s staying power after four years of conflict. It’s not clear whether the two Islamist offensives are linked. But Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese army general, and other analysts say the Damascus regime is currently under growing military pressure. “The regime is fatigued,” Hanna observed.