Syrian army regains control of Deir ez-Zor airport

An overview of the most recent developments on the ground in Syria, including the regime securing Deir ez-Zor Airport in the east, the emergence of a large tunnel in a Damascus suburb that leads into the besieged neighborhood of Ghouta and the latest IS movements near the capital.

al-monitor Men stand along a street lined with damaged buildings and a mosque in Deir ez-Zor, eastern Syria, March 7, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed al-Khalif.

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syria, jabhat al-nusra, damascus

Dec 9, 2014

The Syrian army has regained control of Deir ez-Zor Airport after succeeding in thwarting an attack by the Islamic State (IS) on the military airport a few days ago. Although clashes are still ongoing in the areas surrounding the airport, they have lessened to a large degree.

Moreover, differences between Jaysh al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra emerged, revealing the existence of a huge tunnel linking the Barzeh and Harasta neighborhoods [of Damascus] in order to transfer supplies to the fighters in Ghouta [an area of northeast Damascus], at a time when the power of IS is growing in Rif Dimashq [east of Damascus]. Meanwhile, in the countryside around Aleppo, clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed factions have been intensifying.

IS fighters quickly retreated after their attack on Deir ez-Zor military airport failed, withdrawing to the outskirts of surrounding villages. The Syrian army launched intensive airstrikes on their strongholds on the outskirts of the villages of al-Jafra, al-Hawija and Marihiyak in order to further secure the airport area and prevent fighters from having a second opportunity at getting close to its walls.

Moreover, yesterday [Dec. 7] airstrikes also hit Hawija Saker, which witnessed violent clashes between the two sides, leading to the death of a number of IS fighters. Raids also targeted neighborhoods inside the city of Deir ez-Zor — in the al-Omal and al-Matar neighborhoods as well as the gas station near Ghassan Abboud roundabout, which led to the outbreak of fire.

During the past few days, the military clashes raging in the areas surrounding the military airport of Deir ez-Zor have led to the death of dozens of IS fighters, which included Arabs and foreigners, but many were from the countryside of Deir ez-Zor, particularly from the villages of Bou Lel, Bou Omar and Mohsen. This prompted some to accuse IS of sending the young men of these villages to their demise. These people considered that mobilizing young men to join IS fights was part of an ongoing massacre against the people of Deir ez-Zor, which has been underway since it first controlled the city a few months ago. They believe that the objective of IS is clear, to get rid of the city’s young men who are capable of fighting and thus ensuring that no rebellion can rise against it, as happened with the Sheaitat clan [in eastern Syria].

Suleiman Issa al-Kahilat (aka Abu Hajar Al-Sheati), who is the brother of Abu Ali Al-Sheati — one of the first people to pledge allegiance to IS in the city at the beginning of the year — was among those who perished in the clashes.

On another note, differences between Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra have revealed the existence of a huge tunnel, which had been dug [at considerable] cost. [The tunnel] links the Barzeh and Harasta neighborhoods in order to transfer supplies to the fighters in Ghouta and break the siege imposed by the Syrian army on the Ghouta neighborhood.

Although the location and route of the tunnel remains unknown, its existence was uncovered when Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir in the region arrested a leader in Jaish al-Islam who was tasked with overseeing the tunnel. Both movements exchanged accusations, each side accusing the other of trying to monopolize the tunnel to serve its own interests. It is noteworthy that Barza neighborhood has been one that was covered by a settlement agreement between the militants and the Syrian army for several months now. Uncovering this tunnel might affect this settlement, especially if it was proven that some factions that signed the settlement had kept the tunnel secret or participated in using it.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to take over the tunnel indicates that it has a plan to carry out acts in East Ghouta; this is especially likely as information has been circulating about rising disputes between the movement and Jaish al-Islam. Moreover, Jabhat al-Nusra is worried about the increasing power of the Islamic State in some regions in the Damascus suburbs, where IS announced forming a camp to train "the caliphate cadets" in south Damascus.

As-Safir received information from a local source in Al-Hajar al-Aswad city that indicates that Jaish al-Islam’s campaign against IS in the past few months did not destroy the latter. This is contrary to what what Zahran Aloush [head of Jaish al-Islam] and his media platforms recently declared. IS militants hid and disappeared, waiting for the right moment, which seems to have come at last.

In the same context, IS militants managed to take over the Bir al-Qasab area of the Damascus suburbs following violent clashes with Jaish al-Islam that went on for several days.

Bir al-Qasab is a strategic location for East Ghouta as it constitutes a supply line out to the the Jordanian border. Bir al-Qasab is also important for Daraa, as it is the gateway to Daraa due to its proximity to al-Lajat region. It is no longer a secret that IS intends to enter Daraa.

The tensions in the suburbs of Idlib persist between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Hazm Movement, as the repercussions of the arrest of the leader of the movement, Mashhour al-Tawil, are still unfolding. Recently, the movement issued a statement threatening to target hundreds of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders and militants if their leader was not released.

However, the authenticity of the statement was dubious but facts indicate that things are heading toward escalation. This is especially the case since Jabhat al-Nusra has insisted on destroying any allies of Jamal Maarouf in the suburbs of Idlib. They are paving the way for turning the region into an emirate, even though there is no official declaration of such a thing. The tensions worsened yesterday in the Idlib suburbs when news circulated about the disappearance of a member from "the Sharia Committee of al-Sham Legions," Sheikh Abdullah Rahal, and Jabhat al-Nusra was accused of abducting him.

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