Syrian Government Forces Pound Districts of Damascus Held by the Islamic State Fighters

Syrian Government forces have used warplanes, helicopters and artillery to pound districts of the capital held by the Islamic State group, in a bid to enforce an evacuation deal reached with the militants earlier in the week, ABC News reports. Two Palestinian refugees, a father and a son, were killed during the fighting at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, according to the United Nation’s Palestinian refugee agency, which added that thousands of homes had been destroyed in four days of fighting.

Hundreds of IS militants hold parts of the Yarmouk camp and the nearby area of Hajar al-Aswad in southern Damascus. They agreed to give up their last pocket there on Friday (local time) but have yet to begin surrendering to government forces and relocating to IS-held areas elsewhere in the country.

State-run al-Ikhbariya TV showed thick grey smoke billowing from the Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood on Sunday, and government warplanes streaking overhead amid heavy bombardment of the area. Residents of Damascus reported hearing loud booms throughout the night and Sunday morning. United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunnes said since the start of fighting four days ago, most of the 6,000 civilians in Yarmouk camp had been forcibly displaced to the neighbouring area of Yalda.

“Most fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Their needs are dire. There are reports that people are begging for medicine. Some have spent their first nights in the street,” he said in a statement.

Mr Gunnes added that the camp’s last functioning hospital, Palestine Hospital, was now completely unable to operate and called on all sides to allow for the safe evacuation of civilians wishing to leave the area. President Bashar al-Assad has escalated his military campaign to retake all remaining enclaves in the capital and surrounding areas.

The IS-held areas in southern Damascus are the last holdouts, after rebels evacuated the eastern Ghouta suburbs following a fierce government offensive and an alleged poison gas attack in the town of Douma.

According to Al Masdar News, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has spent much of this Spring on the offensive in and around Damascus, leaving much of the rebel-held territory in northern Syria relatively untouched. However, with the success of their East Ghouta and eastern Qalamoun offensives, the Syrian Arab Army can now turn their attention to two important fronts that are located away from Damascus.

The first area of concentration for the Syrian Army will be the southern provinces of Dara’a and Al-Quneitra, which are both located near the borders of Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights. Leading this offensive will be the Syrian Arab Army’s elite 4th Division, who have already deployed to the northern parts of the Dara’a Governorate. The Russian Reconciliation Center has attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the rebel forces in these provinces; however, they ultimately rejected the deal and vowed to fight the government.

The Jordanian regime stepped in two weeks ago to ask the Russian Reconciliation Center to hold off launching the offensive, as they will try to convince the rebels to reconsider. It has now been 14 days and the Syrian Army is set to launch their operations in the coming weeks.

While this front may not be as large as southern Syria, the battle for Jabal Al-Akrad, the Al-Ghaab Plain and Jisr Al-Shughour will arguably be just as important to the Syrian Army. Jisr Al-Shughour and Jabal Al-Akrad have long been strongholds for the terrorist groups of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), making their capture a high priority for the Syrian military.

The aforementioned terrorist groups often fire indiscriminate missiles into the nearby Latakia Governorate, which not only agitates the Syrian government, but also, the Russian military because of their bases in the province. Turkey has already given the Russian military their approval to launch this offensive, but it may take some time for this operation to get going due to the fact that the Tiger Forces are still busy fighting ISIS in southern Damascus.

Meanwhile, chemical weapons inspectors collected samples from Douma on Saturday, two weeks after the suspected gas attack there prompted retaliatory strikes by Western powers on the Syrian government’s chemical facilities, The Washington Post reports.

The site visit, confirmed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will allow the agency to proceed with an independent investigation to determine what chemicals, if any, were used in the April 7 attack that medical workers said killed more than 40 people. The OPCW mission is not mandated to apportion blame for the attack.

Douma was the final target of the government’s sweeping campaign to seize back control of eastern Ghouta from rebels after seven years of revolt. Militants gave up the town days after the alleged attack. The Syrian government and its ally Russia denied responsibility for the suspected chemical attack.