Daesh closes in on Damascus: activists

Published September 1st, 2015 - 06:30 GMT

ISIS [Daesh] battled Syrian rebel forces in a Damascus neighborhood Monday, bringing the militants closer than ever to the center of the capital, an activist group said.

ISIS militants fought street battles against Islamist rebels in Asali, part of the capital’s southern Qadam district, after seizing two streets there over the weekend, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“This is the closest ISIS has ever been to the heart of Damascus,” Observatory head Rami Abdel-Rahman said.

He said the extremists had advanced from the adjacent Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood, where they have been based since July 2014.

A Syrian military official confirmed the clashes and said he was “very happy that they are fighting.”

“But we are ready to react if they try to advance into government-held territory,” the official told AFP.

According to the Observatory, opposition-held Qadam has been relatively quiet since a truce between rebel groups and regime forces there a year ago.

It said fighting in the district on Sunday left 15 fighters dead, but it could not specify how many were from ISIS and how many were Islamist rebels.

Abdel-Rahman said the “fierce street battles” had forced civilians to flee the area.

Since its expulsion from the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus last year, ISIS has used Al-Hajar al-Aswad as a base for attacks on the capital.

From there, it tried to seize the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in April, but was pushed back.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she would welcome Iran’s participation in any negotiations that were aimed at ending the civil war in Syria.

Her comments, at a news conference in Berlin, reflect changing European attitudes toward Iran since it agreed last month to curb its nuclear work in exchange for sanctions relief.

Asked whether she thought Iran could play a constructive role, Merkel said: “I think Iran has a lot of influence over what happens in Syria. And everyone is welcome to participate constructively in the negotiations.”

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the US-led coalition’s campaign against ISIS was not doing as well as had been hoped in Syria and parts of Iraq.

Harper also said Canada, one of the nations helping Iraq to fight the extremist group, would need “a long and sustained strategy” with its international partners against ISIS.

Also Monday, Fighting renewed between Syrian rebels and President Bashar Assad’s forces in the vicinity of Al-Thala air base in the Swaida province in southern Syria, an activist group monitoring the Syrian crisis said Monday.

In June, the Observatory said Syrian rebels captured parts of the military airbase. But Syrian state television denied that, saying the army had killed dozens of “terrorists” following several failed attempts to seize it.

In a separate report, the activist group said Monday that three Assad troops were killed in clashes with Syrian fighters in Daraya in the sprawling Eastern Ghouta.

In Aleppo, an army officer was killed during clashes with ISIS near Kweiris military airport, the group also reported.

In the northwest province of Idlib, the Army of Conquest alliance edged closer to Foua, one of two remaining regime-held villages in the province.

The Observatory said the alliance, a collection of Islamist and miltant groups including Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, seized the village of Sawaghiya on the southeast edge of Foua early Monday after overnight clashes.

The fighting left nine fighters from both sides and two civilians dead.

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