The peculiar case of Syria’s al-Qadam neighborhood

IS is gaining control of the al-Qadam neighborhood, which means that Daraa highway will be within its range of fire.

al-monitor Syrian families carry belongings in the southern Damascus district of al-Qadam as they return to their homes after Syrian authorities and rebels agreed to a truce, Aug. 21, 2014. Photo by GETTY IMAGES/Youssef Karwashan.

Topics covered

yarmouk refugee camp, syrian army, jaysh al-islam, jabhat al-nusra, is, daraa highway, ajnad al-sham

Sep 2, 2015

The Yarmouk camp scenario is playing out once again in the al-Qadam neighborhood. The Islamic State (IS) has stormed the neighborhood and made rapid progress, while other factions are reeling back from the shock.

It seems that the sleeper cells, the secretive pledges of allegiances and the vague stances have become part of the flaring scene south of the capital.

On Aug. 31, IS advanced in the al-Qadam neighborhood and took control of about half of the area, including al-Assali, which is the eastern part of the neighborhood near the Al-Hajar al-Aswad area — the stronghold of the organization south of Damascus for almost over a year.

IS also advanced toward the city of al-Madaniyah, where clashes are flaring in Arnaout Street in the vicinity of the Hudhayfah ibn al-Yaman mosque. The organization has made clear advances and has trapped some of the Ajnad al-Sham fighters, demanding them to surrender if they wish to be safe.

Ajnad al-Sham remains positioned in about six neighborhoods that are yet to fall under IS control and is trying to prevent the organization’s progress.

The clashes are not limited to al-Qadam, as IS is spreading in the al-Zayn neighborhood separating Al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda, where battles are raging between IS and Jaysh al-Islam.

Similarly, in the al-Tadamon neighborhood, battles are raging between the Ababil Houran Brigade, Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and IS.

There are also clashes on the outskirts of the Yarmouk camp to the side of the Cultural Center overlooking Yalda between Jabhat al-Nusra and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis in Yalda supported by Sham al-Rasoul. This suggests that southern Damascus, where settlements have been ostensibly reached with the Syrian army, is teetering on the brink of the abyss, and resulting losses are likely to be immense should things continue down this path.

The al-Qadam neighborhood was the last area in southern Damascus that signed a settlement agreement with the Syrian army in August 2014.

According to the agreement, militants ought to be deployed in the western side of the neighborhood only. However, the agreement did not provide for putting down arms, nor did it stipulate that militants are allowed to go out to settle their matters, as was the case in other areas.

Despite the settlement, one could say that the al-Qadam neighborhood is not actually under the control of the Syrian army, as it remains controlled by the armed factions. The Syrian army is deployed in some checkpoints only, most importantly in the neighborhood entrance to the side of Nahr Esh, and another checkpoint on Daraa highway. The Syrian troops are heavily present in the Sbeneh neighborhood, near al-Madaniyah.

The Syrian army forces stationed in this area have been on full alert, mobilizing forces on the demarcation lines with the neighborhood.

On the other hand, there have been indications suggesting that the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union has been controlling the al-Qadam neighborhood, while the strongholds of al-Nusra are located nearby. IS members were clearly present in al-Assali, in addition to some cells that have secretly pledged allegiance to the group and played a role in facilitating its storming into the area.

“The situation is really bad. IS is advancing amidst the collapse of Ajnad al-Sham, especially in Arnaout Street, as the organization managed to trap them,” a source from al-Assali told As-Safir.

Regarding the al-Nusra stance vis-a-vis these developments, the source confirmed that the group “stood on the sidelines and did not intervene in favor of any party. It sought to conclude an agreement between the two sides, but the deal was canceled only hours after being signed.”

“In the al-Qadam neighborhood, al-Nusra took a different stance than in Yarmouk camp, where it was allied with IS,” the source added.

However, this raises many questions as to the reasons behind al-Nusra’s vague stances in southern Damascus, while its branches in other Syrian areas make no secret of their hostility toward IS.

There has been news about the dissention of about 150 fighters under the command of Saleh al-Zammar from IS to join the ranks of Ajnad al-Sham, after he heard some of the organization’s leaders talking about capturing women in the neighborhood.

However, the source confirmed that Zammar did not pledge allegiance to IS, but was presenting himself as such to preserve his interests.

The number of IS fighters in southern Damascus is estimated at 2,000 militants, mostly stationed in Al-Hajar al-Aswad, which was controlled by IS last year following its withdrawal from other southern Damascus areas that have entered into a settlement with the Syrian army, such as the towns of Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem.

About 300 IS militants were involved in clashes in al-Asali, while the number of Ajnad al-Sham fighters is estimated at about 250 militants.

A media activist in the Yarmouk refugee camp, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told As-Safir that he has been noticing over the past few months the increasing number of fighters joining IS, especially after the group increased the wages of the men joining its camp. Each fighter is being paid now about 80,000 Syrian pounds [$424], which is prompting many young people to fight in its ranks even if not convinced of its ideology.

The recent clashes broke out against the backdrop of the assassination of Abu Malik al-Shami, the commander of Ajnad al-Sham, and the subsequent development that led to the death of one of the IS fighters who was accused of the assassination. However, all indications suggest that the attack comes as a continuation of previous steps, whereby IS has been trying to consolidate its presence in the vicinity of the capital, as happened previously in the Yarmouk camp.

The ongoing developments in the al-Qadam neighborhood are critical, especially in case IS manages to take control of the entire area, which is located less than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the capital and only 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the Umayyad Mosque. Moreover, IS control over the neighborhood means that Daraa highway will be within its range of fire, and thus it will cut off supply lines for the Syrian army. Many believe that this highway is no less important than the Damascus International Airport.

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