Syria’s army said it was in full control of the capital Damascus and its outskirts after ousting Islamic State, marking a major milestone in the seven-year war.
“The Syrian army announces today that Damascus, its outskirts and surrounding towns are completely secure,” it said in a statement carried by state media network SANA on Monday, May 21.
The development came after troops had captured a key southern portion of Damascus from IS, the statement said, including the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the adjacent district of Hajar al-Aswad.
“The wheel of our progress on the battlefield will not stop until all Syrian land is purified,” it added.
Russian-langauge Russkaya Vesna posted video of Syrian Arab Army troops raising the national flag in the Yarmouk camp, which had been under siege for years.
Syria’s war erupted in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, including in the capital. The following year, the government began losing control of parts of Damascus and placed a crippling siege around Yarmouk, which lies in the capital’s south.
The army’s announcement came hours after a tenuous evacuation deal saw hundreds of ISIS fighters and their relatives quit Yarmouk, according to reports. Videos posted on social media on Sunday appeared to show buses entering the camp to transport ISIS fighters and their families.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 21, 2018
The government has denied reaching a deal with ISIS. It said a brief ceasefire had allowed one convoy of women and children to leave the pocket in southern Damascus.
But one military source close to the regime told AFP that 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,” the source added.
ISIS overran Yarmouk, then home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, in April 2015.
Since last year, Syria’s government has cleared swathes of territory around Damascus from its armed opponents through a blend of military pressure and evacuation deals.
Last month the Syrian army took control over the suburb of Eastern Ghouta after rebels in Douma laid down arms and evacuated the enclave.
Eastern Ghouta was the opposition’s main stronghold in Syria and suffered a five-year siege before an onslaught beginning in February that left over 1,800 civilians dead. The first two enclaves were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals last month that saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.
Battle shifts to southern Syria?
Last week, Turkey completed its 12th and final observation point in Idlib province, finishing a ring of outposts and creating a “de-confliction” zone as part of a deal agreed with Iran and Russia.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 16, 2018
Idlib province is held by opposition fighters and jihadists.
The deal would seem to allow Assad to refocus attention on Daraa, among the last remaining opposition and ISIS-held territory in the west of the country, raising the spectre of confrontation with Israel in the Golan.
On May 10, Israel struck dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria, the latest in an escalating number of missile strikes across the border. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Jonathan Conricus said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds forces had fired a rocket towards the Golan Heights, which had been on high alert.
Israel regularly attacks Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria, and is believed to be behind airstrikes on several Syrian sites since the country’s civil war began, but they have increased in recent weeks as the war winds down in other parts of the country.
With reporting from AFP