The Syrian army waited until yesterday evening [Aug. 14] to announce that it fully controls the town of Al-Maliha in the region of Damascus, after 130 days of fighting and hours after the news had already spread in the media.
The army waited before making the announcement because of the complex task of combing the tunnel networks and the many booby-traps in residential buildings, where snipers hid until their final moments.
Even before the army’s announcement, pro-government media outlets announced that the army-Hezbollah alliance took control of Al-Maliha, while state television announced that significant progress was made in the town, in a reference to the success of the army’s tactic to force the gunmen, most notably from Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra, to withdraw through the only outlet left open: a 300-meter path to east Ghouta, specifically to the towns of Jesrin and Zibdin.
It seems that the army was right to be cautious. Hours after the media said that the operation had ended, an explosion caused a building to collapse, killing at least two soldiers from the engineering and demining units. That building was among dozens that were being combed.
The army has not yet uncovered all the booby-trapped tunnels. The tunnels network found in Al-Maliha was one of the most complex networks found in the Syrian war. Many of the army’s field commanders said that they never dealt with such a complex network despite their field experience. The logistical complexities in Al-Maliha are similar to those in Jobar and Daraya, where there’s a tunnel war going on between the army and the gunmen.
Later, the army command announced that it controlled Al-Maliha. An army spokesman read a statement saying that “security and stability have been restored to Al-Maliha and the surrounding farms in east Ghouta in the Damascus countryside after a series of quality and decisive operations killing large numbers of “takfiris-terrorists-mercenaries” who were holed up in the city and used it as headquarters for their terrorist acts. By controlling Al-Maliha, the Syrian army has tightened its grip on the remaining hotbeds of terrorism in East Ghouta and has secured a base that can be used as a springboard to get rid of them.”
In a clear message about the possibility of reaching settlements in other areas of Ghouta, the army statement appealed to “all those who were tricked to lay down their arms to take advantage of the amnesty decrees and contribute to the defense of the homeland.”
According to local media sources, about 500 gunmen have managed to withdraw toward the center of east Ghouta. Activists said that between 100 and 150 fighters were killed during the withdrawal attempt, mostly from Ajnad al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Jaish al-Islam.
There were continuous air raids yesterday [Aug. 14]. Some targeted the gunmen’s locations around the town and some buildings there. More than 12 raids were recorded before noon yesterday, while the number of air raids in the past two days numbered more than 40, some aimed at the gunmen’s barricaded sites in a residential neighborhood north of the town and also near the Tamiko pharmaceutical plant and a rubber factory. That location was a point of convergence for the military tunnels and that’s where most of the gunmen fled to.
The army continued the tactic of forming a blockade accompanied by intense air strikes and a cautious land advance, which yesterday reached Ahmad al-Homsi street north of the town, thus expanding the circle of the army’s presence to the center of the town and its outskirts. The army also deployed ground troops around the northern buildings after combing nearly 90 of those buildings yesterday. The army showcased its confidence in its advance by television reports organized by the Department of Military Guidance, which accompanied the troops yesterday afternoon. And warplanes carried out low altitude “celebratory” sorties over the town.
The army seemed close to decisively winning the battle after it crossed Street 16 and after it re-closed the gap that the gunmen had opened last week, particularly by the battalion controlling the Assia plant, which the gunmen held for a long time.
Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing using a BMB-armored vehicle laden with one ton of explosives at an army checkpoint on the southern fringes of Al-Maliha. The bombing killed about 30 people and allowed the fighters to bring in supplies for a limited period of time. But then the army closed the gap and tightened the siege again.
Throughout the three-month siege, the army swept the farms and orchards surrounding the town, especially those extending between them and the towns of Shebaa and Zibdin, to which some of the gunmen fled.
The army’s control of Al-Maliha has raised hopes of settlements being reached in neighboring towns if their remaining populations can convince the gunmen to “withdraw voluntarily or accept a settlement with the army,” noting that there is internal pressure in this direction in the hope of avoiding a new battle, especially given the near-total destruction in Al-Maliha.
The mortar shelling of Jaramana, which lasted over almost half-year and which is adjacent to Al-Maliha, is expected to decrease. Yesterday, sources said that the army was advancing in Ain Tarma, which is next to Jobar. That’s an indicator that pressure on Ain Tarma is being raised. Ain Tarma is considered one of the most important launching points of rocket and mortar strikes on Damascus.
The gathering of forces toward Ain Tarma and the resumption of land battles there means that the goal is to complete the liberation of Jobar, which also constitutes a threat to Damascus.
Indeed, there were reports of clashes between Syrian army units and gunmen from Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam at the Bina Barakat axis in Jobar. The army was also able to destroy several buildings on the outskirts of the town after digging tunnels underneath them and blowing them up, in an attempt to cut off the logistical supply routes between them and Douma, where there are large gatherings of Islamic fighters in Ghouta, most notably Jaish al-Islam, which is led by Zahran Alloush.
Islamist Twitter activists and oppositionists inside and outside Syria accused the controversial leader Zahran Alloush of “selling the town” to the regime. Activists close to the Islamic State (IS) accused him of “treason” and mocked his claim that he is “out of ammunition” when he fights the regime. They also accused him of being “an agent for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,” promising a confrontation with him in the future.
For their part, Jaish al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army refused to admit defeat. Twitter activists who support them said that those organizations “tactically withdrew from some of the sites in the town” and promised that they would “return.”
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