Daesh militants have moved into a southern suburb of Damascus after a deal with the Syrian army forced opposition groups to retreat from the area last week, Reuters has reported. The so-called Islamic State killed 36 Syrian Arab Army soldiers as they entered the district of Al-Qadam, which has been a scene of fierce fighting since the early days of the seven-year conflict.
Last week, opposition groups left the suburb for the rebel-held northern province of Idlib under an evacuation agreement with the government of President Bashar Al-Assad, allowing regime troops to move in. Daesh, which had held a separate part of Al-Qadam and had fought the rebels there sporadically, launched an assault against government forces to take the area they had vacated.
The extremists of Daesh have lost almost all their territory in Syria after two rival offensives last year by the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, and an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the US, as well as continued fighting with Syrian opposition groups. Daesh now controls only the small pocket in Al-Qadam and two small areas of desert on each side of the River Euphrates near the border with Iraq.
However, reports of Daesh gains came on the same day that UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the country is heading for a catastrophic partition which could see the return of Daesh if there is no inclusive peace settlement. De Mistura, holding up a map of Syria with different colours representing territory held by different parties, said, “This is fragmentation; this is in fact a country which has areas under the influence of other countries.”
Al-Qadam is south of the suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which has endured heavy bombardment since the beginning of this year; more than 1,400 people have been killed there in the past month alone. A UN ceasefire agreement has been ignored by the Syrian regime and the Russian government, which have continued an air and ground assault, splitting the opposition-held area into three shrinking pockets each held by different opposition groups. The regime has also used chemical weapons against civilians on multiple occasions, including the use of chlorine and napalm in an attack on the town of Hamouriyah last week.
On Friday, the enclave’s main opposition groups — Faylaq Al-Rahman, Jaish Al-Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham — said that they would be willing to hold direct UN-sponsored talks with regime backer Russia regarding a ceasefire.