BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army has re-established control over all areas surrounding the capital Damascus for the first time since the beginning of the seven-year war, after expelling militants of the Islamic State from a pocket of the south of Damascus. He said.
forces have been struggling for weeks to recover the al-Hajar al-Aswad district and the adjacent Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp from the Islamic State since the rebels were expelled from eastern Ghouta in April.
In a televised statement, the Syrian army high command said that al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk had been released from the militants.
"Damascus and its surroundings and the Damascus countryside and its villages are completely safe areas," the statement said, adding that the army will continue to fight "terrorism" throughout Syria.
With its complete capture of the capital's surroundings, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is now in its strongest position since the early days of the war, which has killed more than half a million people and led more than half of the population of their homes since 2011.
The anti-Assad rebels now mainly control only two large areas in the northwest and southwest near the borders with Turkey and Jordan. Turkey and the United States also have presences in parts of Syria outside of government control.
The far-right jihadist group Islamic State, which was expelled from most of the Euphrates River valley last year, now controls only two desert areas besieged in eastern Syria. Another insurgent group that has pledged allegiance has a small enclave in the southwest.
The Islamic State also captured a third of neighboring Iraq in 2014, but was defeated there last year.
SHOOTING IN CELEBRATION
A temporary humanitarian ceasefire had been in effect since Sunday night in al-Hajar al-Aswad to allow women, children and the elderly to leave the area, state media said on Monday.
Army soldiers fired into the air in celebration and held Syrian flags, against a shattered cityscape of shattered buildings and widespread destruction, state television images showed.
The buildings and walls were chopped, marked by bullets and artillery shells, the metal parabolics were bent and singed, and the dome of a mosque had a huge hole near its base.
On Sunday, a war monitor said the fighters had begun to withdraw from the area into the territory of the Islamic State in eastern Syria under a surrender agreement, but state media said the fighting continued.
The war monitor, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory based in Britain, said Monday that buses had already started from south of Damascus to areas of the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
A US-led military coalition fighting against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq said in a statement emailed to Reuters that it was "aware of reports of an evacuation near Yarmuk and southern Damascus" and I was monitoring the situation.
While Assad has promised to recover "every inch" of Syria, the map of the conflict suggests a complicated time ahead.
The US military is largely east and northeast, which is controlled by Kurdish groups that want the autonomy of Damascus. He has used force to defend the territory of pro-Assad forces.
Turkey has sent forces to the northwest to counter the same Kurdish groups, creating a buffer zone where the anti-Assad rebels have regrouped.
In the southwest, where the rebels have territory on the border with Israel and Jordan, Assad faces the risk of conflict with Israel, which wants its Iranian-backed allies to stay away from the border and has mounted airstrikes in Syria .
Report of Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington, Edition of Richard Balmforth, Peter Graff, William Maclean