Islamic State closes in on Damascus
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.