Battle Near Damascus

Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

Syrian Government Drives ISIS Out Of Damascus

May 22, 2018 - 11:50 am

DAMASCUS (WCBS 880/AP) -- For the first time since 2011, Damascus and its suburbs are under full control of the Syrian government.

Reading an army statement on Syrian TV, Gen. Ali Mayhoub said the army captured the former ISIS strongholds in the Palestinian Yarmouk camp and Hajar al-Aswad after a month-long campaign. He said the army operations were "concentrated and successive," leading to the extremists' defeat in the city.

"Damascus and its surroundings are completely secure," Mayhoub said.

CBS News Military Analyst and retired Army Maj. Mike Lyons said this could mean the end of the civil war in Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad could declare victory.

“The government reports say that the Syrian Army has driven ISIS out of all these rebel enclaves, and the group’s last remaining stronghold in the southern Damascus neighborhoods there, so really, the first time since the Assad government has had total control of the capital since the civil war began in 2011, so this is a big day for the Syrian government as it looks to declare victory and end the civil war,” he said.

But Lyons told WCBS 880’s Wayne Cabot and Paul Murnane that ISIS could set up a camp elsewhere in Syria.

“Probably not – you look at the geography of Syria, and there’s a lot of places to escape and go to. What Syrian government now has got to focus on is establishing its border – drawn back during the World War I area. But the Kurds still have areas that they populate in the northeastern section,” Lyons said. “But ISIS can also find places within Syria – within the boundaries itself – to try to restart and regroup. But it’s very much damaged; it’s very much on the run.”

State TV earlier said that government forces resumed an offensive at noon after a group of civilians was evacuated from the area overnight. Two hours later, the TV said troops captured ISIS' former stronghold of Hajar al-Aswad and broadcast images showing troops waving the Syrian national flag in the heavily destroyed neighborhood.

A war monitoring group said some 1,600 people, including hundreds of ISIS gunmen, left the area on Saturday and Sunday, heading toward the desert east of the country following a deal with the government. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces were now clearing the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, a built-up residential area, of the last remaining ISIS fighters. It said the month of fighting left scores dead on both sides.

The TV earlier quoted an unnamed Syrian military official as saying the two-day truce had been in place to evacuate women, children and the elderly on Sunday night from Hajar al-Aswad. Syrian state media denied a deal was reached to evacuate fighters.

The push into Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk came after government forces captured the last rebel-held southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus, boosting security in Assad's seat of power.

"The Daesh terrorist organization was wiped out in Hajar al-Aswad," an unnamed Syrian soldier told state TV, using an Arabic acronym to refer to ISIS. "We will keep marching until we liberate all parts of Syria."

Assad's forces have been making steady gains since 2015, when Russia launched an air campaign on behalf of his forces. In December 2016, government forces captured rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, marking Assad's biggest victory since the conflict began. In March and April, thousands of opposition fighters surrendered and were evacuated from Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta, after a crushing government offensive.

Shortly before noon on Monday, when the truce was supposed to end in Hajar al-Aswad, government warplanes struck ISIS positions as Syrian troops began advancing deeper into the neighborhood. The Observatory said ISIS fighters have been setting their offices and vehicles on fire so that government forces would not be able to seize equipment or documents belonging to the group.

The extremists have been driven from nearly all the territory they once held in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but still maintain a presence in remote areas along the border.

Both Russia and Iran have provided crucial military support to Assad's forces, giving them the upper hand in the civil war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Assad during a meeting last week that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops from Syria. Putin's envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said the Russian leader was referring to Iranian forces.

But on Monday, Tehran appeared to reject that idea, saying its forces will remain in Syria and continue fighting "terrorism" at the request of the Syrian government.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters Monday that no one can force Tehran to do anything it doesn't desire to do. "Our presence in Syria has been based on a request by the Syrian government and Iran will continue its support as long as the Syrian government wants," he said.

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)