Pulverised Yarmuk testimony to bitter 'battle of Damascus'

Yarmuk (Syria) (AFP) –


The road leading into southern districts of Damascus was lined by endless mounds of smashed concrete and rubble, monuments to the cost of the Syrian army's battle for the capital.

Standing on Route 30, a main street in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk, a young Syrian soldier sighed: "This was the last battle in Damascus. I'm extremely happy."

"Damascus will go back to the way it was. We'll forget the days of shelling and blood -- this victory will help us forget it all," said 22-year-old Lieutenant Mohsen Ismail.

Syria's army on Monday announced it was in full control of Damascus after a month-long assault that ousted the Islamic State group from Yarmuk and surrounding districts.

Hours after the announcement, black clouds of smoke still hung in the air and some small fires were still raging in the abandoned neighbourhoods.

Piles of rubble were still blocking most streets, making them impossible for cars to access during a media tour of the area organised by Syria's government.

Syrian soldiers were still deployed across the area. Some fired their weapons in the air in celebration, while others lay down in apparent exhaustion.

For four weeks, Syrian troops and allied Palestinian fighters waged a relentless battle for Yarmuk, as well as Hajar al-Aswad, Qadam, and Tadamun.

They used air strikes and heavy artillery against IS, which deployed snipers and suicide attackers, according to Ismail.

- Snipers, suicide attacks -

"Yesterday (Sunday), we were storming a building and five soldiers who were with me were killed," he said.

"This battle was different than the rest because they relied heavily on suicide bombers. If one of their fighters got surrounded, he would blow himself up immediately instead of surrendering," said Ismail.

The jihadists blew holes into walls of adjacent homes and used tunnels to move across areas undetected. Faced with such tactics, he didn't think he would survive.

"When I came here from Jobar and saw this, the suicide bombers, the snipers -- I thought there's no way we'll come out alive," he told AFP.

In one case, he was pinned down for more than an hour by an IS sniper in an area he thought was already secured.

In another, a jihadist hiding out in a house the army had raided jumped out and fired at a soldier, wounding him.

Capturing the capital's south is a major milestone for the regime, which first lost control over parts of Damascus just a year after the conflict began in 2011.

President Bashar al-Assad has used military assaults and negotiated withdrawals to secure territory all around the capital in recent months, before turning to Yarmuk.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a similar deal had been reached for Yarmuk at the weekend.

After a brief ceasefire, some 1,600 people, including IS jihadists and their relatives, left the area on Sunday and Monday under the cover of darkness, said the Britain-based war monitor.

No media was present to document the evacuations.

The government has denied a deal with IS and said a brief ceasefire allowed one convoy of only women and children to leave the southern Damascus pocket overnight.

- Ghost town -

One military source close to the regime said fighters had left under a deal reached through negotiations with the government and its ally Russia.

The month-long assault was bloody for both sides.

One Syrian soldier who identified himself only as Wissam said the toughest parts of the battle were the snipers, "the narrow streets and proximity of the buildings to one another."

But the 22-year-old fighter said the most important part was the outcome: "Now that the terrorists have left, people can sleep in peace."

Yarmuk was once a thriving district in Syria's capital, home to some 160,000 Palestinian refugees as well as Syrians.

But there were no residents in sight on Monday.

Some civilians who had been previously displaced by the fighting could be seen trying to access their districts by car.

The army turned them back, saying it wasn't safe enough yet.