The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) advanced into a large district in southern Damascus, bringing the jihadist group closer to the center of the capital, the terrorist organization and Syrian activists have reportedly said.
ISIS clashed with rival rebel factions in Asali, part of the southern opposition-held Qadam district, just a few miles from the center of the Syrian capital Damascus, reports The Associated Press (AP).
“This is the closest ISIS has ever been to the heart of Damascus,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, chief of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses an extensive network of activists on the ground to monitor the Syrian conflict.
He noted that the jihadists had advanced from the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood, where they have been stationed since July 2014.
ISIS has used the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood, adjacent to the Qadam district, as a base for attacks on the capital since it was expelled from the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus last year, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The Observatory said that more than two dozen militants were killed in the battles, which took place on the edges of the Qadam neighborhood.
ISIS jihadists captured half of Qadam from rebel and Islamist fighters, pro-ISIS Aamaq News Agency reported.
The Observatory’s chief reportedly said ISIS jihadists controlled two streets, adding that the fighting continued.
“ISIS supporters posted propaganda pictures claiming to show their fighters advancing in the narrow streets of Qadam,” notes AP. “The authenticity of the images could not be confirmed independently.”
“Fierce street battles” had forced civilians to flee the area, noted Abdurrahman.
I am “very happy that they are fighting,” an unnamed Assad regime military official told AFP, confirming the clashes between ISIS and rebel groups.
“We are ready to react if they try to advance into government-held territory,” he added.
The Observatory pointed out that Qadam has been relatively quiet since a truce deal between opposition groups and the Assad regime was reached there a year ago.
Over the past year, ISIS has seized about one-third of Syria and its neighbor Iraq. The jihadist group is one of the most powerful forces in the Syrian conflict seeking to overthrow embattled dictator Assad. His palace is located on the western part of Damascus.
Islamist and rebel factions fighting forces loyal to Assad control parts of Damascus and large parts of the capital city’s suburbs.
In April, ISIS jihadists entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. The jihadist group still controls a large part of the massive camp, which is located east of Qadam.
When ISIS arrived in Yarmouk, it also seized other areas in the suburbs of Damascus. At the time, the jihadist group was reportedly five miles from Assad’s palace.
The U.S. recently renewed its commitment to a political transition in Syria away from Assad.
In announcing the beginning of the U.S. training mission in Syria earlier this year, top Pentagon officials said the so-called moderate Syrian rebels were not being trained to attack forces loyal to Assad, noting that the trainees would only attack if provoked.