Syrian forces en route to the Yarmouk refugee camp (YouTube, April 16, 2018)
Artillery fire by a Syrian tank in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood (Syrian Army Information Unit, April 21, 2018)
- ISIS had prepared for the attack, estimating that at the end of the battle in eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian army would launch a campaign to take over southern Damascus. ISIS’s preparations for the campaign included: expanding the areas under its control (taking over the Al-Qadam neighborhood west of the Yarmouk refugee camp); fortification (digging trenches, revetting positions and digging tunnels); and (unsuccessful) attempts to join forces with other rebel organizations operating in the area (the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army refused, apparently preferring to make their own arrangements for evacuation with the Syrian regime).
- Concurrently with the preparations for the attack, ISIS negotiated with the Syrian regime to reach an evacuation agreement, being aware that it is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Syrian army in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus. During the negotiations, it was proposed to evacuate the ISIS operatives to the Bir Qassab area in the Syrian Desert (east of Damascus) and later to the Yarmouk Basin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights (an area controlled by the ISIS-affiliated Khaled bin al-Walid Army). Following the failure of the negotiations, the Syrian regime gave ISIS 48 hours to leave the area south of Damascus for the Yarmouk Basin. At the end of this period, ISIS was given a further extension of 24 hours. When no agreement was reached, the Syrian army mounted an offensive.
- The southern neighborhoods of Damascus, mainly the Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood to its south, have been under the control of ISIS for the past two years. ISIS’s forces in the area include between 2,000 and 4,000 operatives subordinate to its Damascus Province. ISIS’s success in establishing itself in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus compromised the governance of the Assad regime and the connection between the Syrian capital and southern Syria. The takeover of ISIS’s enclave by the Syrian army would constitute another severe blow to ISIS while at the same time completing the establishment of the Syrian regime in the Damascus area. This would also place the Syrian regime in an improved starting point for the takeover of the area of Daraa and the Syrian Golan Heights and the Idlib area, the two key areas that are still controlled by the rebel organizations.
The establishment of ISIS in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus over the past two years
- Six months after the collapse of the Islamic State (early November 2017), ISIS’s presence and operational activity in Syria are concentrated in three areas. The most prominent of these is the lower Euphrates Valley and the deserts to the north and west of it, especially the area between Albukamal and Al-Mayadeen. ISIS also controls an enclave in the Yarmouk Basin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights (the Khaled bin al-Walid Army) and the area of the Yarmouk refugee camp and the surrounding neighborhoods south of Damascus. Unlike the Euphrates Valley, where ISIS enjoys considerable freedom of movement, the ISIS enclaves in the Yarmouk Basin and south of Damascus are surrounded by rival rebel organizations and by the Syrian army and forces loyal to it, and are at a disadvantage.
- Since the spring of 2015, ISIS has managed to establish its control over the southern outskirts of Damascus: large parts of the Yarmouk refugee camp; the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood; most of the Al-Qadam neighborhood (which was taken over by ISIS during the Syrian army’s campaign to take over eastern Al-Ghouta); and the Al-Tadamon and Al-Qadam neighborhoods. In addition, the Al-Zayn neighborhood, south of the Al-Qadam neighborhood, is a friction zone between ISIS operatives and operatives of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham. In these neighborhoods, there is also a presence of other rebel organizations, including the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (whose operatives are located in the northwest of the Yarmouk refugee camp and in several other neighborhoods), but ISIS is the most prominent. According to the Syrian and Arab media, ISIS has a few thousand operatives (between 2,000 and 4,000) in the neighborhoods south of Damascus. These operatives are subordinate to ISIS’s Damascus Province.
The areas under ISIS’s control in the Yarmouk refugee camp (in the center) and in the surrounding neighborhoods, as reported by ISIS’s Amaq News Agency (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 20, 2018)
Preparations by ISIS and the Syrian army for the campaign over southern Damascus
- In the ITIC’s assessment, ISIS believed that after the takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta by the Syrian army, its enclave in southern Damascus could be next. Therefore, ISIS took a series of military and political steps in preparation for the expected attack:
- Expansion of the control area: ISIS took advantage of the Syrian army’s preoccupation with subjugating the rebel organizations in east Damascus to expand its area of control south of Damascus. In this context, it managed to take over the Al-Qadam neighborhood (west of the Yarmouk refugee camp) from the Syrian army.
Right: ISIS operatives in the Al-Qadam neighborhood after it was taken over from the Syrian Army. Left: Syrian army tank destroyed by ISIS operatives in the Al-Qadam neighborhood (Akhbar al-Muslimeen, March 17, 2018).
- Entrenchment: ISIS operatives dug trenches and tunnels in areas under their control (including the Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Qadam neighborhood). The purpose was to protect themselves against the expected airstrikes and to facilitate the movement of ISIS operatives from place to place.
Right: ISIS operatives digging a trench in the Al-Qadam neighborhood (ISIS’s Damascus Province as quoted on the “Al-Yarmouk Camp in Our Hearts” Facebook page, April 7, 2018). Left: ISIS operative armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle manning a fortified position in the Al-Qadam neighborhood (Nasher, April 7, 2018).
- Unsuccessful attempts to recruit allies: When the signs of preparations by the Syrian army for the campaign over south Damascus increased, ISIS proposed to the other rebel organizations to cooperate with it against the Syrian army but met with a refusal. The rival jihadi organization, the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham, apparently preferred to try to rescue its operatives by means of an evacuation arrangement with the Syrian regime (so far without success). Another rebel organization, the Free Syrian Army, evacuated a force called Jaysh al-Ababil to southern Syria following an agreement reached with the Syrian regime. On April 7, 2018, about 1,500 armed operatives were evacuated to an area some 40 km north of Daraa, where they joined the rebel groups encircling the ISIS enclave in the Yarmouk Basin (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, April 8, 2018).ISIS’s negotiations with the Syrian regime to reach an evacuation agreement: Aware of its basic inferiority vis-à-vis the Syrian army and its allies south of Damascus, ISIS began negotiations to reach an evacuation agreement similar to the arrangements reached with the other rebel organizations in eastern Al-Ghouta. Initially, negotiations were held regarding the transfer of ISIS operatives to the area of Bir Qassab in the Syrian desert (east of Damascus), where it will be easy for them to join forces with the operatives in the Euphrates Valley. Subsequently, Syrian and Arab media reported on negotiations for the transferring of ISIS operatives to the Yarmouk Basin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights (the area controlled by the Khaled bin al-Walid Army). When the negotiations for an evacuation agreement did not produce results, the Syrian army mounted an offensive.
The Syrian army
- During the first half of April 2018, in advance of the complete takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian army began to transfer reinforcements to areas adjacent to ISIS-controlled territories. The reinforcements included Syrian army forces as well as Palestinian military and militia forces fighting alongside the Syrian army: the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Liberation Army (PLA), and other Palestinian militias (Zaman Al-Wasl, April 7, 2018). As part of the preparations, a Russian delegation visited sites bordering on ISIS’s control area in south Damascus, in order to get to know the front lines with ISIS and assess the situation (Secrets of the Yarmouk Camp Facebook page, March 31, 2018).
Reinforcements of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it heading to the Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Qadam neighborhood (Butulat Al-Jaysh Al-Suri, YouTube, April 12, 2018)
- As preparations for the attack were completed and negotiations for an evacuation agreement with ISIS did not produce any results, the Syrian army launched a campaign to liberate the neighborhoods of south Damascus from the hands of ISIS. This new campaign was announced on April 19, 2018, by the Syrian army Information Department. The campaign was begun on April 19, 2018, by artillery fire and airstrikes at ISIS targets in the Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood (the two key neighborhoods in the areas held by ISIS).
- The targets attacked included headquarters, outposts, weapons and supply lines. In addition, targets of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham were also attacked in those two neighborhoods. The airstrikes were followed by a ground attack. The main sites of the attack were apparently the northwestern part of the Yarmouk refugee camp, the Al-Qadam and Al-Tadamon neighborhoods. The Palestinian Al-Quds Brigade reportedly also takes part in the battles, as well as a force from Ahmad Jibril’s organization.
The demographic aspect: The Palestinian population in the Yarmouk refugee camp
- The main site held by ISIS in the Damascus southern enclave is the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp, which until the outbreak of the civil war was the largest refugee camp in Syria (and a center of the Palestinian terrorist organizations). The scenes of devastation and the fate of the Palestinians, most of whom fled the camp, are expected to receive high-profile media coverage due to the sensitivity of the Palestinian issue. It seems that the Syrian regime is well aware of that and is preparing to address the issue.
- During the civil war, residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp fled from it en masse. In the beginning of the war, there were about 160,000 residents in the camp (according to UNRWA), but because of the fighting and the devastation, almost all of the residents left. Today, only about 6,000 Palestinians and Syrian citizens suffering from dire humanitarian conditions are present in the camp. A question which remains unanswered is whether after ISIS is removed, the Assad regime will agree to the return of the Palestinian residents, at least some of whom are considered unreliable.
- It seems that, in order to ward off future criticism, the Syrian regime emphasizes the role played by Palestinian military forces and militias in the takeover of the camp (the Al-Quds Brigade, the Palestinian Liberation Army, Ahmad Jibril’s organization, and additional Palestinian militias). In addition, the Syrian regime began to prepare for addressing the issue of the Palestinian population. In relation to this, it was reported that the regime had appointed Mohammad Sa’id, commander of the Al-Quds Brigade (the most significant Palestinian military force supporting the regime), as the person in charge of taking care of the Palestinian refugees in south Damascus (ivansidorenko1@ Twitter account).
 In addition, ISIS forces are also present elsewhere in Syria, such as in the Idlib area, but they do not constitute a significant force and are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis other rebel organizations, primarily the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (formerly the Al-Nusra Front). The area of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus and the Yarmouk Basin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights are the only places where ISIS controls territory where it manages the daily lives of the (remaining) residents and constitutes the central authority. ↑
 “The Army of Bird Flocks,” a phrase taken from a chapter in the Quran. ↑
 On the other hand, it appears that the evacuation of ISIS operatives to the Idlib area, where most of the rebels from eastern Al-Ghouta were evacuated, is unacceptable to ISIS because it would place it under the threat of the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham (which is the dominant force in that region). ↑
 For information on the Palestinian forces fighting alongside the Syrian forces, see the ITIC's Information Bulletin from March 19, 2018: “Armed Palestinian forces, militias and organizations handled by the Syrian regime in the Syrian civil war.” ↑