Middle East

Rebels take on ISIS in new Damascus front

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels announced Thursday the opening of a new “front” against ISIS extremists in the east of Damascus after the jihadi group’s recent offensive in the Yarmouk neighborhood at the southern end of the capital.

The Islam Army militia and the 1st Brigade of the rebel Free Syrian Army said they launched attacks against ISIS positions in the districts of Qaboun, Jobar and parts of Barzeh, killing four jihadis and taking another 20 prisoner.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of anti-regime activists, said ISIS militants were responsible for killing two civilians during the battles. ISIS was given an ultimatum the day before to vacate the area, several sources said.

A spokesman for the Islam Army said that his militia managed to take over two of the “headquarters” being used by ISIS in the nearby district of Tishrin after the jihadis vacated them.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said at least one rebel fighter was killed in the fighting, which came as a standoff between ISIS and rebel groups continued in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk.

A brief respite in the clashes in Yarmouk saw U.N. officials deliver urgently needed aid, while residents exploited the calm to carry out the gruesome task of reburying nearly a dozen residents who perished in the recent fighting.

An anti-regime activist based in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus told The Daily Star that the earlier campaign by ISIS against rebels in Yarmouk, and Thursday’s offensives against the jihadis in the eastern part of Damascus, were linked.

“After what happened in Yarmouk, it became clear to the rebels that they had to act,” he said.

ISIS was largely ejected from the Eastern Ghouta last summer by the Islam Army, but the jihadi group managed to retain a small presence in the neighborhood of Al-Hajar al-Aswad, south of Yarmouk.

But in recent weeks and months, ISIS militants infiltrated Jobar and Qaboun in eastern Damascus, the activist said, adding that the eastern neighborhoods of the capital and nearby suburbs are divided into self-contained areas linked by roads that are extremely dangerous to cross.

ISIS militants relied on the relatively calm conditions – which have seen the return of thousands of displaced people to their homes – to infiltrate the area, in some cases bribing regime forces to let them slip in, he said.

“There were probably 170 to 250 ISIS fighters in these areas, with very few foreign fighters in their ranks. It appears that about several dozen surrendered to the rebels” during Thursday’s clashes, the activist said.

Elsewhere, Syrian regime troops and rebels engaged in fierce clashes in several parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, while the United Nations Security Council heard testimony from Syrian doctors about the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime in several locations in Idlib.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told reporters after the closed-door meeting that the Security Council would now seek to identify those behind the attacks and ensure they face justice.

The U.S, Britain and France accuse President Bashar Assad’s regime of using chlorine gas against civilians, but Russia maintains there is no firm evidence Damascus is responsible.

“All the evidence shows that they come from helicopters,” Powers said, pointing out that “only the Assad regime has helicopters.”

Power said council members became “very, very emotional” while watching a video of the doctors struggling to save children who were vomiting and choking.

“If there was a dry eye in the room, I didn’t see it,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2015, on page 12.

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