Syria troops prepare for anti-IS offensive near capital: monitor

Beirut (AFP) –


Syrian regime forces are gathering around a southern part of Damascus ahead of a planned operation against the Islamic State group there, a war monitor said Thursday.

IS fighters have controlled large parts of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk and sections of the neighbouring districts of Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamun in the capital's south since 2015.

Last month, they overran the adjacent Qadam neighbourhood, taking advantage of Syrian troops being busy with an operation against rebels in Eastern Ghouta on the capital's northeastern flank.

"Since Sunday, reinforcements of regime forces and loyalist fighters -- especially Palestinians -- have been sent to the south of Damascus, in preparation for a military offensive to end the IS presence in the capital," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said.

"Palestinian fighters will be at the forefront of any military advance on the Yarmuk camp," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan also reported a potential military offensive on IS in the area, but gave no timeline or further details.

Expelling the jihadists would give the regime full control of the capital for the first time since 2012.

Once a thriving district home to some 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmuk has been devastated since late 2012.

Clashes broke out that year between regime forces and rebels in the camp, causing thousands of people to flee.

Since 2015, IS has controlled the large majority of Yarmuk, while Syria's then Al-Qaeda affiliate controlled other parts.

In the past two weeks, former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters have left Yarmuk under a negotiated withdrawal, but hundreds of IS fighters remain, the Observatory says.

Three of these negotiated pull-outs have recently seen tens of thousands of rebels and civilians leave Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus that was once a key opposition stronghold.

Brokered by regime backer Russia, the agreements have come after a blistering air and land assault launched by government troops on February 18.

Evacuations were continuing from the third and final rebel-held pocket of Ghouta on Thursday, according to state news agency SANA.

Late Wednesday, 635 people -- Jaish al-Islam rebel fighters and members of their families -- left Ghouta's main town of Douma for the northern rebel-held town of Jarabulus, SANA said.

With Russia's backing, President Bashar al-Assad's regime has regained large parts of Syria that it had lost to rebels and jihadists in the seven-year war.