Battling rebels, ISIL moves closer to central Damascus

Battling rebels, ISIL moves closer to central Damascus

BEIRUT – Agence France-Presse
Battling rebels, ISIL moves closer to central Damascus

AFP photo

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants battled Syrian rebel forces in a Damascus neighborhood Aug. 31, bringing the jihadists closer than ever to the center of the capital, a monitoring group said.

ISIL militants fought street battles against Islamist rebels in Asali, part of the capital’s southern Qadam district, after seizing two streets there over the weekend, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“This is the closest ISIL has ever been to the heart of Damascus,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

He said the jihadists had advanced from the adjacent Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood, where they have been based since July 2014.

A Syrian military official confirmed the clashes and said he was “very happy that they are fighting.”

“But we are ready to react if they try to advance into government-held territory,” the official told AFP.

According to the Observatory, opposition-held Qadam has been relatively quiet since a truce between rebel groups and regime forces there a year ago.

It said fighting in the district on Aug. 30 left 15 fighters dead, but it could not specify how many were from ISIL and how many were Islamist rebels.

Abdel Rahman said the “fierce street battles” had forced civilians to flee the area.

Since its expulsion from the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus last year, ISIL has used Al-Hajar Al-Aswad as a base for attacks on the capital. From there, it tried to seize the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in April, but was pushed back.

That same month, ISIL kidnapped two opposition fighters from Qadam and beheaded them in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.

More than 240,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict, which began with popular anti-government protests in March 2011 but has evolved into a complex civil war.

The conflict has seen the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad lose swathes of territory across the country.

In the northwest province of Idlib, the powerful Army of Conquest alliance edged closer to Fuaa, one of two remaining regime-held villages in the province.

The Observatory said the alliance, a collection of Islamist and jihadist groups including Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, seized the village of Sawaghiya on the southeast edge of Fuaa early yesterday after overnight clashes.

The fighting left nine fighters from both sides and two civilians dead.

After capturing the majority of Idlib province, the Army of Conquest surrounded and began heavily shelling the Shiite Muslim villages of Fuaa and Kafraya.

This month saw two failed attempts at reaching broad ceasefire deals including Fuaa, Kafraya, and the rebel stronghold of Zabadani in Damascus province.