Syrian forces look to turn south Damascus into stronghold

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The Syrian regime is planning to create a safety belt to facilitate its control over larger areas around the capital while converting some opposition groups into allies.

The developments taking place south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, are of fundamental importance for all the parties active in that area, which is close to the heart of the capital and a main access point to the anticipated and decisive Damascus battle. The Syrian regime is the most prominent player on the battleground, and through its actions one can understand what is happening south of Damascus.

After the Syrian regime restored control over large and important districts in the [southern] region and limited the opposition's control to six districts only, including the Yarmouk refugee camp, it managed through its siege and starvation policy to impose reconciliations in three main towns: Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahem. Also, [the Syrian regime] was able to convert some opposition factions in those areas into “interest groups” that enjoy a military force and carry out the dictates of the regime. In exchange, these groups continue to receive privileges, supervise the entry of aid and food to their regions, and only allow their distribution and sale in neighboring areas (al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Tadamon neighborhood and the Yarmouk camp) whose residents suffer from the continuing blockade.

This led to [the emergence of] what the besieged people call “blood traders.” These traders amassed fortunes through this operation, which allowed them to sell food at high prices while under siege.

The regime geographically separated those areas via shields and barriers, thus preventing the passage of aid to the besieged areas. It divided them into two areas that have no common “revolutionary” interests.

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This marked the Syrian regime's first successful step in entrenching itself. The second step consisted of reviving doctrinal and religious differences, and igniting sedition and fighting among [the opposition] in order to weaken it and completely eliminate the forces rejecting reconciliation in those towns. These forces first targeted Jabhat al-Nusra. The regime renewed the blockade and blocked the only lifeline in Beit Sahem to incite the people and factions that had been at peace with Jabhat al-Nusra in a bid to eliminate the group from that region. Subsequently, a fierce war broke out between those factions [Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and Ababil Horan] last March while Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir was assassinated March 6 in south Damascus.

Through the mediation of Ahrar al-Sham, the fighting stopped, and Jabhat al-Nusra withdrew to the Yarmouk refugee camp, which has become its only stronghold in south Damascus. However, shortly after the March 30 assassination of humanitarian activist and Hamas movement leader Yahya Hourani, the Syrian regime-affiliated Al-Watan newspaper rushed to accuse Jabhat al-Nusra of assassinating [Hourani] so as to ignite fighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis Brigades, which the regime says are affiliated with Hamas, and belong to an alliance called "The Reform Forces," along with Sham al-Rasoul Brigade and Ababil Horan Brigades — Jabhat al-Nusra’s opponents.

Jabhat al-Nusra has seemingly realized the nature of the game that the regime is playing. [Jabhat al-Nusra] is facing a scheme aimed at ending its existence or completely weakening it south of Damascus. Should this scheme succeed, Jabhat al-Nusra will find itself under siege from all sides, which probably explains the new tactic it adopted by allowing its arch foe, the Islamic State (IS), to enter the camp and prevent the Aknaf Brigades from receiving reinforcements from Sham al-Rasoul Brigades, Ababil Horan and Jaish al-Islam.

During the battles that took place in the Yarmouk refugee camp, the regime did not stand idle. The regime carried out its first airstrikes April 4, targeting Jabhat al-Nusra sites near the Palestine roundabout. These sites are a strong barrier blocking the entry of those reinforcements, and the regime’s attack was aimed at opening a gap in this barrier, thus converting the Yarmouk camp into a battlefield for the various forces and factions. And when its attempt failed, the regime politically invested IS’ entry to find itself a role in the international anti-IS coalition and look for a formal Palestinian cover to continue implementing the plans related to the ill-fated camp.

Based on the regime's policy of isolation and blockade in south Damascus and the division of the area into two blocs, the Yarmouk camp can be considered part of the second “besieged” bloc. However, it can also be deemed an independent bloc, given its peculiarity of being the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. This camp can also be deemed a main tool used in a bid to control the Palestinian card, as is now well known.

[The regime] deals with [this camp] in a special way so it can use it politically. It consistently destroys it — rendering it a scorched land — empties it of its population, and eliminates any attempt to neutralize it. Also, the regime is keeping the camp in a state of “clinical death” until it is done using it politically. Then it will turn the camp into a last battlefield where the various forces in south Damascus will fight and subsequently destroy it in one fell swoop.

The Syrian regime is carrying out a long and thorough operation in south Damascus with the aim of reshuffling cards and using intellectual and ideological differences and popular incitement to dismantle the internal structure of the armed opposition factions. Also, [the regime] is sowing discord among [these factions] while isolating and dividing areas through reconciliation. It is destroying their social, humanitarian and revolutionary fabric as it considers them liberated. This is all done in order to form a safety belt that serves as an early warning device that would give it enough time to mobilize its troops and counter any attempt to advance to the capital through the region.

The regime had the pro-Palestinian militias and National Defense Forces make simple progress attempts on the two fronts of the Yarmouk refugee camp and al-Tadamon neighborhood. This enabled it to transfer its main forces to the most heated fronts around Damascus. [The regime] knows that any real military action there on its part would destabilize the pillars of the [safety] belt and unite everyone against it.

The operations room of "Nusrat al-Mukhayam" managed to distract IS terrorist groups and force them — amid the blows of opposition factions — to exit the Yarmouk camp and return to their hotbeds in al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood.

However, the positive atmosphere that followed Operation Decisive Storm, the field progress of the opposition factions in the south and north of Syria and the flexibility that the United States began to show with regard to Syria are factors that impose the need to work on thwarting the regime’s plan and its security belt project through the unification of south Damascus neighborhoods as one bloc under the banner of the revolution. This would rescue the people from further collapses, would nip social rifts in the bud and would thus pave the way for a smooth achievement of goals.

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Found in: yarmouk refugee camp, war, syrian regime, syrian opposition, syria, jabhat al-nusra, damascus
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