Beirut: The Syrian regime’s army began preparatory shelling for an assault on the last area outside its control near Damascus on Tuesday, a commander in the pro-regime alliance said, building on its recent capture of the major suburb of eastern Ghouta.
Recovering the Yarmouk camp and neighbouring areas located south of the city would give Bashar Al Assad complete control over Syria’s capital, further consolidating his grip on power.
Yarmouk, Syria’s biggest camp for Palestinian refugees since the mid-20th century, has been under the control of Daesh for several years. Although the vast majority of residents have fled, the United Nations says thousands remain.
Al Assad has benefited from Russian air power since 2015 to regain large swathes of Syria, putting him in his strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old war.
After the recapture of eastern Ghouta, Al Assad still has several smaller pockets of ground to recover from rebels, as well as two major areas they hold in the northwest and southwest.
Besides the pocket south of Damascus, rebels still hold besieged enclaves in the town of Dumayr northeast of Damascus, in the Eastern Qalamoun mountains nearby, and around Rastan north of Homs.
In northwest Syria, the largest area still held by rebels, a regime assault could bring Damascus into confrontation with Turkey, which has set up a string of military observation posts in the area.
Syrian regime media reported that missiles had again targeted an airbase overnight, but a commander in the regional military alliance backing the regime later told Reuters it was a false alarm.
The commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new offensive would target Daesh and Nusra Front militants in Yarmouk camp and Al Hajar Al Aswad district.
A tour of Douma on Monday revealed widespread destruction and traumatised residents who recalled months spent cowering in crowded underground shelters infested with lice, with barely any food or water during the regime’s indiscriminate bombing.
Except for the Russian and Syrian regime troops patrolling the streets, few people could be seen in Douma, the majority of its residents now displaced to rebel-held areas to the north.
The main hospital, courthouse and municipal buildings were largely reduced to rubble, while the nearby Grand Mosque, famed for its towering arches, white dome and majestic palm trees was riddled with bullet and shell holes — testimony to the intense regime assault the town was subjected to since being seized by the rebels six years ago.
Douma was one of the first areas to rise up against Al Assad’s regime and until a few weeks ago it was a major threat to his seat of power in Damascus, as rebels pelted it with shells, disrupting normal life. On Saturday, Syrian regime forces entered Douma for the first time since 2012.