ISIS from Southern Damascus to AsSuwayda
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in southern Damascus was established in the context of the ongoing conflict in Syria as an extension to ISIS territory between Iraq and Syria. ISIS in this area are comprised of remainder members of Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups and defectors from Jabhat al Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al Sham). ISIS leaders in this area have strong ties both within themselves and to the core of ISIS leadership.
In July 2014, one month after the declaration of the Caliphate in Baghdad, a group of ISIS sleeper cells in southern Damascus pledged their allegiance to the Caliphate.
Between July 2014 and February 2018, ISIS expanded from a small geographical area of al Hajar al Aswad south of Damascus to 70% of al Yarmouk camp including its northernmost border in Damascus, al Tadamun, al Uruba, and al Takadum east of Yarmouk. ISIS expanded to the east and southeast frontlines of the FSA and other Islamic-faction held territory and parts of Al Qadam and E’sali to the west and south west of Damascus.
On April 17th 2018 several media websites reported that the Syrian Army was gathering forces on the northern gate to southern Damascus of al Yarmuk to “liberate” southern Damascus from ISIS. The media sources also reported that negotiations were underway with ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and other armed groups in Yelda, Babila and Beit Sahem to evacuate them and/or agree on a settlement. The proposed destinations for ISIS fighters are al Yarmouk valley, al Bu Kamal, or the shamiya desert in mid-eastern Syria. Hayat Tahrir al Sham and the other groups will be evacuated to Idlib in the north.
Interviews: This paper is based on the testimonies of 8 witnesses living in the area that have witnessed the events since 2012. We corroborated facts between the stories and verified the narratives within the context of widely reported unfolding events.
Desk study: There is a lack of coverage of this topic, but we were able to find some articles that laid out the general information about ISIS in southern Damascus and verified the information with the interviewees.
Founding ISIS in the south
Beginning in 2003 with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Syria served as a main passageway for jihadis and fighters into Iraq, including foreign and Syrian mujahedeen. All of those that later returned to Syria were arrested by the Syrian government. The mujahidin adherent to jihadi Salafi ideology built their networks in Iraq initially with al Qaeda and later with Shura al Mujahideen, which was led at the time by Abu Omar al Baghdadi. When the Syrian revolution started and later escalated into an armed conflict, radical Islamists who were previously imprisoned appeared in many areas in Syria, including southern Damascus.
Early in 2012, Husam al Halabi known as Abu Mujahid, formed with Abu Salim al Iraqi a branch for Shura al Mujahideen. While little is known about Abu Salim al Iraqi, according to witness testimonies, he told people he was al Mujahid who fought in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, and came to Syria for the solidarity of the people of Syria. Once in Syria, Abu Salim al Iraqi met Abu Mujahid who had previously served five years in Sednaya prison and had been released in 2008.
While it was Abu Mujahid and Abu Salim who established Shura al Mujahidin, Abdullah Faris Tayyara was another key actor – he was released from a Syrian government prison in 2012. Abbdullah Tayyara formed the first group of Jabhat al Nusrah in southern Damascus and went by the name Abu Sayyah Farrameh. He presented himself to people in the area as a mujahid who fought in Iraq, was imprisoned by Assad, and referenced his good relationship with Abu Omar al Baghdadi. According to our interviewees, Abu Sayyah met with Abu Mohammad al Julani, the leader of Jabhat al Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al Sham) in southern Damascus while planning the expansion of Jabhat al Nusra into southern Damascus.
In July 2014, Abu Sayyah defected from Jabhat al Nusra, joined by Abu Mujahid, Abu Salim, and around 70 other fighters. After Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared the founding of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ISIL, these defectors pledged their allegiance to ISIS.
The structure of ISIS in southern Damascus
On the 23rd of December 2013, and For a short period, ISIS joined a coalition in southern Damascus called al Rabitta al Islamia (the Islamic League) with Jabhat al Nusrah, Aknaf Beit Al Maqdes, Ahrar al Sham, Sham al Rasoul, and Lewa al Umma. ISIS then conducted its suicide attacks through this coalition in al Syeda Zainab and military operations against shiite militias in southern Damascus.
Later in 2014, ISIS began fighting other Islamic and Free Syrian Army groups, dissolved many of them, and recruited their fighters to join ISIS. At the time, Abu Sayyah (who’s originally from Yelda) became the Amir of ISIS in Wilayat Dimashq (Damascus) and formed the structure ISIS in the southern Damascus. Under Abu Sayyah, Abu Salim was the head of security and Abu Mujahid the head of the army.
These three Amirs (leaders) formed the foundation of ISIS in southern Damascus and built institutions for Wilayat Dimashq, similar in structure to the institutions of ISIS in its other territories.
With the money coming to ISIS from Baghdad and Al Raqha, ISIS was able to offer people more than any other armed group. ISIS divided the area into smaller units called qate’ and renamed al Yarmouk camp Qate’ abu Bakr al Siddiq. They classified people into either “Parish” or “Members”.
“Parish” includes all people who live in ISIS controlled areas and receive paid services of water, electricity and garbage collection.
“Members” include the fighters and workers in ISIS departments. Each fighter received a salary of roughly $200/month, in addition to $150 per wife and $50 per child. Each fighter additionally received free water and electricity 24 hours a day.
With this policy, ISIS was able to expand its territorial control and went from 200 fighters to about 1700 in 2018.
In ISIS controlled areas, special attention was paid to children and their education. Initially, people were able to send their kids to schools in neighboring areas. Later, ISIS prevented this and required fighters to send their children to ISIS schools. ISIS focused on inculcating children ideologically through schools and military training in programming they call ashbal al khalifa (cubs of the caliphate). If a fighter dies or gets killed, his wife is obligated to stay in ISIS areas with her children. If she wants to leave she must leave her children. Later, ISIS opened a da’wa school for women to teach them ISIS principles and sharia.
Using the tribal system to expand:
Similar to its method in Der Ezzor and al Raqh, ISIS in southern Damascus used the tribal and ethnic structure of the society to maintain its control. In general, the area under control before the revolution was a mixture of Palestinian refugees in al Yarmouk camp and comprised of about 150,000 people.
The al Naziheen lived in al Hajar al Aswad, a locally used word to describe those displaced from the Golan Heights after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War that later resettled in different areas of rural Damascus, mainly in al Hajar al Aswad. These people came from different tribes and clans such as al Bahatrah, al Hawadjah, al Tallawyeh, al Jabathnah, and al Ja’athlah.
The al Bahatrah tribe was the largest of those and it reached geographically into al Qunaitera. For this reason, Abu Sayyah built a strong relationship with the al Bahatrah tribe through his right hand man Abu Hisham Al Khabouri from the al Bahatrah tribe and the al Khawabrah clan. This eventually backfired on Abu Sayyah, when Abu Hisham led what they called a coup in August 2016. After the tension between the three founders and Abu Hisham and his clan, Abu Hisham sent complaints to the diwan of the Caliphate. A decision from ISIS was taken to depose Abu Sayyah and assign Abu Hisham to replace him. Meanwhile, the tension between ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra in southern Damascus escalated, and there was an attempt to assassinate Abu Sayyah. Abu Salim was injured in the attempt and the three founders left the area through the Syrian regime’s checkpoint at the Barada factory, which was under the control of the Syrian National defense forces and other shia militias.
ISIS and the Syrian government:
In 2016, a relationship between the Syrian regime and ISIS in southern Damascus started to become apparent to the residents of the area. ISIS in southern Damascus worked to develop a mutualistic relationship with the Syrian regime. This mirrored the ISIS strategy of developing economic and trade relationships with key actors on the ground in eastern Syria. The first indication of this was a copper deal in which ISIS sold the regime about 55 tons of copper. Most of our sources on the ground believe there was a deal between ISIS and the Syrian regime which stipulated that ISIS fight Jabhat al Nusra and in return the regime would allow ISIS fighters and their families movement in and out of the camp. Several witnesses confirmed that ISIS women had the freedom to get in and out of the camp for shopping in Damascus. The Syrian regime also allowed ISIS to evacuate its wounded fighters to be treated in al Mahayni hospital in Damascus in the al Midan district with a written referral from the Palestinian hospital in Al Yarmouk camp.
ISIS out of southern Damascus
In January 2018, a national defense fighter who works secretly with the FSA informed the FSA in southern Damascus that the regime transported a large amount of weapons to ISIS through the Barada factory checkpoint.
In February 2018, ISIS launched an attack on HTS inside Al Yarmouk camp, and expanded to occupy about 70% of the 2Km2 of al Yarmouk camp area. Only about 1500 civilians still live there.
On April 19th, ISIS was preparing to leave its territory and relocate to Al Badia al Shamyya (a desert in eastern Syria western Euphrates river) under an agreement with the Syrian regime and Russian Federation. But 2 hours before the evacuation, ISIS launched mortars on Damascus city which caused the agreement to be cancelled. A military operation was initiated by the Syrian regime’s army, Palestinian factions and militias, Shiite militias, and supported by the Russian and Syrian air forces.
The attacks targeted civilians, houses, and buildings but never targeted ISIS’s headquarters. Indeed the attacks turned Al Yarmouk camp into a pile of rubble.
The scenarios of evacuating ISIS from southern Damascus were open. To Dera’a Al Yarmouk Valley area, or the badia in the desert to the east. and south east.
- Al Yarmouk valleyA pocket for ISIS is still in this area, and they’ve a good relation with ISIS in southern Damascus, due to the relativity relations between them. Some interviewees, have heard that Abdullah Tayyara, the former Amir of ISIS in southern Damascus is in Dera’a, and he’s the one who was trying to engineer moving ISIS from southern Damascus or part of it to Dera’a.
- The shamiya desert:
The regime entered Addmayr city on the 19th of April 2018, and held an agreement with Jaish al Islam there to evacuate their fighters to Jarablus in the north. this means that the supply road for the regime and its alliances is opened from Damascus and the east towards the west and the southwest.The desert or al Badia is full of the sleeping and active cells of ISIS, and now will be added to them about 1200 fighters moving from southern Damascus.This will put the eastern part of Syria, under a new situation, might change the who map of power, if things didn’t change in al Jazeera region, mainly in Der Ezzor city, on the other hand, will put more pressure on the American forces in Al Tanf and Al Rukban areas in fighting ISIS.
- Al Sawyada today:
Moving ISIS fighters to the south to Al Lajat, wasn’t a random decision, as the Syrian regime is using a pattern to deal with ISIS. This pattern is based on pushing ISIS into the FSA areas, and then using ISIS fighters and supporting them with weapons and supplies to fight against the FSA, exhausting them and then squeezing the rebels into the corner of the “evacuation agreement” which always leads to evacuate the armed groups and civilians.
The regime used this pattern in Homs, Hama, Albab, and Southren Damascus, and using it again in As Suwayda after taking over Daraa, and apparently, could convince the Israelis and that the regime forces is the only capable forces to protect the Israeli borders.
In this case, the only way to get rid of ISIS in As Suwaydaand the borders with Is to send them to another location, which most likely will be the Albadiya, and its only mission will be fighting the American troops in Al Tanf area and destabilizing Der Ezzor province.