Syria’s military said Monday it has retaken the last neighborhoods in southern Damascus held by the Islamic State group and declared the Syrian capital and its surroundings “completely safe” from militants for the first time in nearly seven years, Time reports.
Gen. Ali Mayhoub said the army captured the former IS strongholds in the Palestinian Yarmouk camp and Hajar al-Aswad after a monthlong campaign. He said the army operations were “concentrated and successive,” leading to the extremists’ defeat in the city. The gains by President Bashar Assad’s troops bring greater Damascus — including the capital’s far-flung suburbs — fully under government control for the first time since the civil war began in 2011.
“Damascus and its surroundings are completely secure,” Mayhoub said.
State TV earlier said that government forces resumed an offensive at noon after a group of civilians was evacuated from the area overnight. Two hours later, the TV said troops captured IS’ former stronghold of Hajar al-Aswad and broadcast images showing troops waving the Syrian national flag in the heavily destroyed neighborhood.
“The Daesh terrorist organization was wiped out in Hajar al-Aswad,” an unnamed Syrian soldier told state TV, using an Arabic acronym to refer to IS. “We will keep marching until we liberate all parts of Syria.”
A war monitoring group said some 1,600 people, including hundreds of IS gunmen, left the area on Saturday and Sunday, heading toward the desert east of the country following a deal with the government. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces are now clearing the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a built-up residential area, of the last remaining IS fighters. It said the month of fighting left scores of dead on both sides.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group downplayed the military victory, saying that it was a “secret agreement” between the government and ISIS that allowed the rebels to depart, NPR adds. The organization claimed that ISIS fighters and their families boarded “some 32 buses that carried out about 1600 people aboard” and that they were driven toward the Syrian Desert. Syrian state media denied there was a deal to evacuate fighters, according to the Associated Press, which quoted one military official as saying that a two-day truce had been arranged to evacuate women, children and the elderly on Sunday night from Hajar al-Aswad.
Amy Austin Holmes, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told NPR that this was an historic day for Assad’s government. “The regime has been saying for some time now that they want to take back all of Syria. This is just one more step toward accomplishing that goal.” She added:
“Whether it will be able to retake all area currently under Kurdish control, that is a whole other question.”
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in Operation Roundup, Syrian Democratic Forces continue to defeat remnants of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River valley, Army Col. Rob Manning, the Pentagon’s director of press operations, told reporters today. The SDF has also gained ground through offensive operations and occupies the majority of the ground along the border since beginning Operation Roundup on May 1, Manning said. The SDF has cleared the Baghuz area of Syria and continues to reinforce battle positions there, he said, adding that the troops are also preparing for future clearance operations in the Dashiba vicinity.
“Coalition forces support the SDF’s efforts by conducting air, artillery and mortar strikes against ISIS targets. In the past 48 hours, coalition military forces conducted strikes against ISIS fighters and equipment near Abu Kamal, engaging ISIS tactical units, command and control, supply routes and fighting positions there, Manning noted.
Since the beginning of Operation Roundup, the SDF has continued to gain ground through offensive operations and occupies the majority of the Iraq-Syria border, he said. The SDF, Manning said, has cleared more than 19 square miles of territory, bringing the total liberated area in the Euphrates River valley to more than 1,900 square miles. As the SDF liberates territory, he added, coalition forces are working with local military and civil councils to assist in establishing security conditions on the ground, so that ISIS cannot return to terrorize the local population and reestablish safe havens to plot and carry out terror attacks.