Damascus: Syria’s army declared on Monday it is in complete control of Damascus and its outskirts after a devastating battle that forced Islamic State group jihadists to flee their last pocket of resistance in the capital.
It marked a major milestone in the protracted war, which began in 2011 and saw parts of Damascus fall to armed rebels the following year.
In recent months, President Bashar al-Assad has used a blend of military pressure and negotiated withdrawals to steadily flush rebels out of territory around Damascus.
But as a small Islamic State holdout remained in the capital’s south, troops and allied Palestinian militia launched an offensive last month to recapture the area covering the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk and adjacent districts of Qadam, Tadamun and Hajar al-Aswad.
On Monday, the army declared it had ousted Islamic State from that zone, sealing its control of the capital.
“The Syrian army announces today that Damascus, its outskirts and surrounding towns are completely secure,” it said in a statement carried on official media.
“The wheel of our progress on the battlefield will not stop until all Syrian land is purified.”
Standing on Route 30, a main street in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk, a Lieutenant Mohsen Ismail, 22, sighed: “This was the last battle in Damascus. I’m extremely happy.”
“Damascus will go back to the way it was. We’ll forget the days of shelling and blood — this victory will help us forget it all,” he said, while some soldiers fired their weapons in the air in celebration.
Hours after the army’s announcement, black clouds of smoke still hung in the air and some small fires were still raging in the abandoned neighbourhoods.
Evacuations shrouded in secrecy
Weeks of fierce combat subsided at the weekend when a ceasefire allowed for group withdrawals, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
“The evacuations are over, after 32 buses took 1,600 people including Islamic State fighters and their relatives out of southern Damascus on Sunday and Monday,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
They were heading east towards Syria’s Badiya, the vast stretch of desert where Islamic State still holds tiny slivers of territory.
After the final departure around midday on Monday, Syrian troops entered Yarmuk for combing operations, said the Britain-based monitor.
Yarmuk was the largest Palestinian camp in Syria and was put under crippling government siege in 2012 — making it one of the longest besiegements of Syria’s war.
Attacks by Syria’s government, as well as rebel and jihadist infighting, have ravaged the district for years.
Islamic State overran it in 2015, and the thriving 160,000-strong population dwindled further to just several hundred.
The evacuations from Yarmuk were shrouded in secrecy and took place under the cover of darkness with no media present.
The government has denied reaching a deal with Islamic State, but did say a brief ceasefire had allowed one convoy of women and children to leave the pocket in southern Damascus overnight.
A military source close to the regime said the deal had been reached through negotiations with the government and its ally Russia.
“They left in small batches at night,” the source said.
“The largest group went towards Syria’s Badiya, because the Americans did not agree to let them enter pockets east of the Euphrates where the Syrian Democratic Forces are present.”
Trucks, not buses
The SDF has been waging its own offensive against Islamic State for several years, ousting the jihadists from Syria’s north and east with air support from the US-led coalition.
It is currently closing in on a string of Islamic State-held villages east of the winding Euphrates river, near the border with Iraq.
The US-led coalition told AFP on Monday it was aware of the reported evacuations from Yarmuk and was “monitoring the situation”.
Last year, Islamic State fighters and relatives were evacuated from an area on the Lebanese-Syrian border under a deal between Islamic State and Hezbollah, the regime’s powerful Lebanese ally.
The deal enraged the US-led coalition, which sent aircraft to shadow the convoy and conducted bombing raids to block it from reaching Islamic State-held territory. Those strikes killed several dozen Islamic State fighters.
A resident of Yarmuk who was evacuated on Monday said Islamic State fighters had tried to take precautions.
“The last group of fighters left on trucks, not on buses. They requested this out of fear the buses would be targeted,” the resident said.
Before launching its anti-Islamic State push in Yarmuk, Syria’s government cleared out other rebels from the area with military drives and evacuation deals.
More than 1,000 Islamist fighters and civilians left Qadam in March for opposition territory in northern Syria.
The following month, Assad’s forces began the assault specifically targeting Islamic State.
Those operations have killed more than 250 pro-regime forces and 233 jihadists, as well as more than 60 civilians, according to the Observatory.