MESOP INTEL BACKGROUNDER : Spotlight on Global Jihad (April 18-25, 2018) – By The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center
- The main event of the week was the expansion of the Syrian regime’s control over the Damascus region. On April 19, 2018, the Syrian army and the forces supporting it launched a campaign to take over the southern neighborhoods of Damascus, which are under ISIS’s control. After a preliminary airstrike and artillery fire, the Syrian forces launched a ground attack whose center of gravity is apparently the northern part of the Yarmouk refugee camp. In addition, following the takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian army expanded its control (without any significant resistance) to the eastern Al-Qalamoun ridge northeast of Damascus. The Army of Islam (Jaysh Al-Islam), which was deployed in the area, preferred to evacuate to the north without a battle, handing over large quantities of weapons (including tanks) to the Syrian army.
The campaign to take over the southern suburbs of Damascus – Overview
On April 19, 2018, the information unit of the Syrian army announced the opening of the campaign to liberate the areas controlled by ISIS in southern Damascus. After around two weeks of preparations, the operation began with artillery fire and airstrikes against ISIS’s headquarters, outposts, weapons and supply routes in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp and in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood west of the camp (ISIS’s two main control areas). After the preparatory bombardment, the Syrian army mounted a ground offensive against several areas under the control of ISIS and the rebel organizations in the neighborhoods south of Damascus.
- The General Staff of the Syrian army distributed leaflets calling on the armed operatives to lay down their arms in southern Damascus. The leaflets were dropped from the air in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad and Al-Tadamon neighborhoods and the Yarmouk refugee camp. The leaflets read: “Make a decision about your fate. Death is coming closer and closer to you. Leave before it is too late. you have two options: to give up your arms or an inescapable fate. The General Staff of the army and the Armed Forces” (“The Yarmouk Camp is in our Hearts” Facebook page, April 23, 2018)
One of the leaflets dropped from the air in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad and Al-Tadamon neighborhoods and the Yarmouk refugee camp (“The Yarmouk Camp is in our Hearts” Facebook page, April 23, 2018)
Preparations for the campaign
ISIS had prepared for the attack, estimating that at the end of the campaign in eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian army would launch a campaign to take over southern Damascus. ISIS’s preparations for the campaign included: expanding the areas under its control (taking over the Al-Qadam neighborhood west of the Yarmouk refugee camp); fortification (digging trenches, revetting positions and digging tunnels); and unsuccessful attempts to join forces with other rebel organizations operating in the area (the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army refused to cooperate with ISIS).
ISIS’s entrenchment in the Yarmouk refugee camp – ImageSat International (ISI)
- Concurrently with the preparations for the attack, ISIS negotiated with the Syrian regime to reach an evacuation agreement, being aware that it is at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Syrian army in the southern neighborhoods of Damascus. During the negotiations, it was proposed to evacuate the ISIS operatives to the Bir Qassab area in the Syrian Desert (east of Damascus) and later to the Yarmouk Basin in the southern Syrian Golan Heights (an area controlled by the ISIS-affiliated Khaled bin al-Walid Army). Following the failure of the negotiations, the Syrian regime gave ISIS 48 hours to leave the area south of Damascus for the Yarmouk Basin. At the end of this period, ISIS was given a further extension of 24 hours. When no agreement was reached, the Syrian army mounted an offensive.
The beginning of the campaign
- The campaign began on April 19, 2018, with artillery fire and Syrian airstrikes on ISIS targets. The attacks focused on the Yarmouk refugee camp and the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood, two key neighborhoods controlled by ISIS. The Yarmouk camp was attacked by an armored force from the north. ISIS claimed that it had halted the attack. In addition, the Syrian army attacked ISIS and the other rebel organizations along other routes in additional neighborhoods in south Damascus.
Locations of the various forces
Armored forces (in the ITIC’s assessment, of the Syrian army and the forces supporting it) detected in a satellite image in the northern Yarmouk refugee camp on the eve of the attack ImageSat International (ISI)
Documentation of the fighting
Syrian tanks attacking centers and fortified positions of “terrorist operatives” in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighborhood in south Damascus (Al-Hadath Suriya, April 24, 2018)
- According to reports by the Syrian regime, so far ISIS sustained many losses. The Syrian media reported that among the dead are commanders and leaders of ISIS and other organizations. One of the fatalities was reportedly Abu Hashem al-Khabouri, ISIS leader (emir) in south Damascus (“Al-Yarmouk Camp is in Our Hearts” Facebook page, April 20, 2018). Another ISIS leader, Khaled Houshan, was killed in the Al-Qadam neighborhood (“Al-Yarmouk Camp is in Our Hearts” Facebook page, April 23, 2018). Another commander, codenamed Abu Fatimah al-Saudi, of a Saudi origin, was also killed.
Right: ISIS emir in south Damascus, Abu Hashem al-Khabouri (“Al-Yarmouk Camp is in Our Hearts” Facebook page, April 20, 2018). Left: Khaled Houshan, ISIS commander killed in the Al-Qadam neighborhood (“Al-Yarmouk Camp is in Our Hearts” Facebook page, April 23, 2018)
- On the other hand, sources affiliated with regime opponents reported that during the battles in the southern neighborhoods, 55 Syrian soldiers and operatives of the militias supporting the Syrian army were killed so far (Qasiyoun, April 23, 2018). ISIS’s Amaq News Agency reported that 51 Syrian army soldiers were killed on April 23, 2018 in the Al-Tadamon neighborhood (Haqq, April 24, 2018). The fatalities included Palestinian militiamen fighting alongside the Syrian army.
- Sources in the Yarmouk refugee camp reported that more than ten residents were killed since the beginning of the attack. It was also reported that Palestine Hospital was put out of commission as a result of the attack. Various neighborhoods in the camp reportedly sustained heavy damage.
The takeover of the eastern Al-Qalamoun Mountains
- On April 21, 2018, following the takeover of eastern Al-Ghouta, the Syrian army expanded its control area to the ridges of eastern Al-Qalamoun, northeast of Damascus. The area taken over by the Syrian army was held by the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), whose operatives were reluctant to fight and preferred to hand over their weapons (including tanks) and evacuate the area. According to the evacuation agreement, the organization operatives were transferred to Idlib (controlled by the Headquarters for the Liberation of Al-Sham) and to Jarabulus in northern Syria (under Turkish protection) (Muraselon, April 21, 2018). The Syrian army released photos of many weapons handed over to it and of a large arms depot belonging to the Army of Islam, containing tanks and armored vehicles (see below).
- In the week that preceded the Syrian army attack, evacuation arrangements were reached in which Army of Islam operatives and their families were evacuated and transferred to northern Syria. As part of the arrangements, it was stipulated that the Army of Islam operatives would hand over to the Syrian army thirty tanks and many weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank missiles, mortars, vehicles with mounted machine guns, various types of rockets, and communications devices (SANA on YouTube, April 22, 2018; SANA, April 24, 2018). In view of these arrangements, the Syrian army did not encounter significant resistance while taking over the eastern Al-Qalamoun ridges, an operation which started on April 20, 2018, and ended the next day.
- The Army of Islam released a leaflet explaining the reasons for the withdrawal of its operatives from the eastern Al-Qalamoun Mountains without fighting while surrendering their weapons. Among other things, it accused ISIS of responsibility, over a period of three years, for wearing down and killing hundreds of Army of Islam operatives in the eastern Al-Qalamoun Mountains. Other reasons mentioned: the advanced weapons used by the Syrians, Russian threats, and the wish to protect the lives of civilians. It was claimed in the leaflet that the Russian side insisted during the negotiations that all heavy and medium weapons in the hands of the Army of Islam operatives had to be surrendered, in return for not attacking the cities and towns on the eastern Qalamoun Mountains (Euphrates Post Facebook page, April 23, 2018).
Leaflet issued by the Army of Islam explaining the reasons for its withdrawal from the eastern Al-Qalamoun Mountains (Euphrates Post Facebook page, April 23, 2018)
Weapons that fell into the hands of the Syrian army
Right: Tanks handed over to the Syrian army. Left: Gun carried on a truck, handed over to the Syrian army (SANA, April 22, 2018)
Anti-tank missiles and launching pads handed over to the Syrian army (SANA, April 22, 2018)
Right: Anti-aircraft guns handed over to the Syrian army. Left: Mortars and mortar shells (SANA’s YouTube channel, April 22, 2018)
The lower Euphrates Valley
Clashes took place this week in the lower Euphrates Valley between ISIS and the Syrian army at a higher level of intensity than in recent weeks. The main sites of the battles were the city of Al-Mayadeen and the town of Hajin, north of Albukamal. Eighteen Syrian army soldiers were reportedly killed in an attack carried out by ISIS operatives against Syrian army positions in Al-Mayadeen. In addition, it was reported that at least 13 ISIS operatives were killed by artillery fire and Syrian army airstrikes against ISIS targets in Al-Mayadeen (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 19, 2018).
Airstrikes against ISIS targets in eastern Syria by the Coalition and the Iraqi Air Force
- On April 17, 2018, airstrikes were carried out, apparently by the International Coalition, against ISIS targets in the town of Hajin, north of Albukamal. A total of 28 ISIS operatives were killed, including seven commanders. One of the targets was reportedly an apartment where a meeting of commanders of ISIS’s Furat Province was being held (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, April 20, 2018).
- The Iraqi media reported that on April 19, 2018, Iraqi Air Force F-16 fighter planes had attacked ISIS targets in Syria. The location of the airstrike was not mentioned, but in the ITIC’s assessment, it was an area close to the border between Syria and Iraq. A total of 36 ISIS operatives, including six commanders, were reportedly killed in the airstrike. Sometime before that, Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi declared that the Iraqi security forces would hunt down ISIS operatives throughout the entire region and not only in Iraq (Al-Sumaria News, April 22, 2018).
- The Iraqi media reported that on April 23, 2018, the Iraqi Air Force had carried out another airstrike, killing the deputy of ISIS leader, codenamed Abu Luqman al-Suri (i.e., the Syrian), who attended a meeting that took place in a building on Syrian territory. Abu Luqman al-Suri was in charge of recruiting suicide bombers and sending them to Iraq to carry out terrorist attacks (Iraqi News, April 23, 2018).
Main developments in Iraq
Iraqi security forces’ activity against ISIS
- The Iraqi security forces continue to operate against local ISIS networks throughout Iraq:
- Kirkuk Province: Three ISIS operatives were killed in clashes with the Iraqi federal police and forces of the Popular Mobilization in the Al-Zab district, about 88 km west of Kirkuk (Al-Sumaria News, April 19, 2018).
- The city of Mosul: The Iraqi Security Information Center reported that thirty explosive belts, several IEDs and a body of a suicide bomber had been found in the city of Mosul, on the east bank of the Tigris River (Al-Sumaria News, April 20, 2018).
- The city of Mosul: The Iraqi security forces captured the man in charge of security in ISIS after he had returned from Syria. Many weapons were found in his possession. He admitted setting up two terrorist squads whose intention was to undermine security. In addition, the man in charge of preparing weapons in ISIS was also captured in Mosul (the Iraqi News Agency, April 22, 2018).
- ISIS reported that its operatives had set up ambushes to Popular Mobilization fighters on a military route in the area of Khanaqin (96 km norhteast of Baqubah, about 8 km west of the border between Iraq and Iran). A Popular Mobilization commander was killed and four other fighters were wounded. Iraqi police forces which arrived in the scene were also attacked (Nasher, April 19, 2018).
Fifteen ISIS operatives saying a prayer before setting out to the area where they would set up ambushes for Popular Mobilization fighters in Khanaqin (Nasher, April 19, 2018)
- According to Reuters, in the first three months of 2018 (from January to the end of March 2018), Facebook removed or added warning notes to 1.9 million items of radical content related to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This is almost double the amount in the previous quarter (October to December 2017). Facebook says that it uses automatic software that compares images in order to detect content related to radicalism and that the removal of radical content took an average of less than one minute during the first quarter of 2018 (Reuters, April 24, 2018).