Fresh off their takeover of Syria’s eastern Ghouta enclave earlier this month, loyalist forces were poised on Friday to subdue pockets south of Damascus held by Islamic State and rebel groups, Syrian pro-government media and activists said.
The move is part of a larger bid to secure the capital, the seat of power of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Syrian state TV broadcast images of the government assault targeting an arc of four militant-held areas ringing Damascus’ southern flank, including the Yarkmouk camp, once home to the world’s largest Palestinian refugee community.
The 6-square-mile swath of territory is home to approximately 12,200 Palestinian refugees, according to estimates from the U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).
The onslaught followed days of army units and pro-government irregulars mobilizing from as far as the northern city of Aleppo before massing south of the capital.
By Thursday, a deal giving the militants safe passage had broken down before Islamic State’s refusal to leave, activists said.
Syrian and Russian warplanes were soon crisscrossing Damascus’ skies on their way to bomb the rebel-held territories. They were joined by the pounding of artillery and rockets.
“The Syrian army is now smashing the defensive line of the armed terrorist groups and conducting attacks inside,” a state TV correspondent, using the government’s routine term for the opposition, said in a live broadcast Friday from what was said to be the outskirts of the Islamic State-held Al Hajar Al-Aswad district.
As he spoke, the sound of sustained heavy machine gun fire could be heard. Smoke engulfed the area’s drab buildings before the camera focused on a slow-growing yellow bloom of an explosion farther away.
Later, he said there were reports that a ceasefire was about to be put in place but was waiting on the rebels to submit fully to the terms of a deal that would see most of them depart to the opposition-controlled province of Idlib in Syria’s northwest or to the eastern desert region still under Islamic State’s sway.
Those who chose to lay down their arms could stay, he added.
Amaq, a news agency affiliated with Islamic State, said in a report released on its social media channel Friday that more than 100 airstrikes had targeted the area since Thursday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog monitoring the violence in Syria using a network of activists, reported on Friday that Islamic State representatives had relented and had accepted the evacuation agreement.
UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said in a statement Friday that the agency was “deeply concerned about the fate of civilians” in Yarmouk and surrounding areas, adding that reports had emerged of civilian casualties as well as displacement of large numbers of people.
“UNRWA stands ready to provide assistance to the population in the area if and when the security situation allows and access is granted,” said Gunness, adding in a later email that Yarmouk had not received aid since 2015.
The impending surrender marks the end of a long-standing thorn for the government.
The conflict in Yarmouk, a shanty town 5 miles south of the capital that has solidified into a claustrophobic jumble of concrete-block homes and crowded walkways, is a smaller version of the larger war in Syria.
Early in the uprising in 2011, Palestinian factions with established bases in the camp began to fight each other, some siding with the nascent armed opposition while others allied themselves with Assad.
It escalated into a battle of wormholes; fighters would creep through tunnels they punched across apartments before burrowing into adjacent buildings. Ragged shrouds lined walkways exposed to snipers.
A shortage of fighters meant children would often keep vigil over access points, playing with AK-47 machine guns and grenades as if they were the kites and balls they had recently abandoned. They would often shout colorful curses at each other from just a few yards, the distance separating different spheres of influence.
By 2015, Islamic State had infiltrated Yarmouk and established control over most of its territory.
With eastern Ghouta in government hands, Damascus moved to dislodge the militants who had long refused any evacuation deal.
Despite reports of a ceasefire, several activists insisted that the fighting was still going on.
“No truce, no ceasefire,” reported the activist-run Yarmouk Camp and Syria News Network.
“Either the [Islamic State] fighters leave the area or they will be buried in the ground of the camp and Al Hajar.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.