Insurgents launch new offensive in outskirts of Damascus

Jihadists, Islamists and rebels affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) launched an offensive in the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital yesterday. The sudden attack began in the Jobar district of Damascus and then spread into a nearby area.

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a joint venture led by al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, launched two suicide attacks with vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs) at the beginning of the assault. HTS (“Assembly for the Liberation of Syria”) posted pictures of the two suicide bombers, as well as images glorifying the moment of their “martyrdom,” on its official Telegram channel.

It appears that small drones were used to generate footage of the SVBIEDs from above. Like their rivals in the Islamic State, al Qaeda’s men in Syria have long used drones to capture the instant when one of their suicide bombers detonates.

Other photos show HTS jihadists moving throughout Jobar, a fighter with an amputated lower arm engaged in combat, a garage complex, a smashed regime poster and a truck captured as part of the group’s “spoils.”

The images can be seen below. (WARNING: In addition to the aforementioned photos, some of the pictures are graphic, showing dead regime fighters on the streets.)

The leader of HTS, Abu Jaber (also known as Hashem al Sheikh), promised just days ago that his men would soon “escalate” their operations against Bashar al Assad’s regime. It appears that the Damascus offensive is part of what he meant. In addition, during the weeks leading up to his message, HTS carried out suicide bombings in Damascus and also killed a senior military intelligence official in Homs. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reports: Leader of al Qaeda’s joint venture in Syria promises to ‘escalate’ operations and Al Qaeda front group claims responsibility for suicide attacks in Damascus.]

Ahrar al Sham, which frequently fights alongside HTS and its predecessor (Al Nusrah Front), is also taking part in the effort. The group has released a series of photos from the fighting on its social media sites. One tweet claims that the “industrial area” between the Jobar and Qabun districts had been mostly “liberated” after many members of the Assad regime’s forces were killed or injured.

Ahrar’s fighters are shown preparing for the battle, fighting in the Damascus neighborhoods, and displaying their “booty” in the images below.

HTS’ current leader, Abu Jaber, and other senior HTS jihadists were once prominent figures in Ahrar al Sham. However, al Qaeda’s forces in HTS and Ahrar al Sham’s members reportedly clashed in northern Syria earlier this year. Indeed, some of Ahrar’s leadership refused to join HTS, deciding to operate their own entity and absorb other factions in the process. But this hasn’t stopped HTS and Ahrar from cooperating on Syria’s battlefields. In addition to the fighting in Damascus, the two have also coordinated in Daraa, a southern Syrian city, Homs province and likely elsewhere in recent weeks.

Faylaq al Rahman, a FSA-branded organization, has played a significant role in the battle as well. Faylaq al Rahman has used American-made TOW missiles previously, including in recent weeks. FSA-affiliated groups have frequently allied with al Qaeda’s jihadists, as is the case in Jobar district. Faylaq al Rahman’s propaganda from the battle places its members in the same areas as HTS and Ahrar al Sham’s men.

Faylaq al Rahman claimed in a statement that two tanks were destroyed. It has tweeted photos of identification cards that allegedly belonged to regime loyalists in the area. And in one video, a Faylaq al Rahman fighter can be heard calling on Assad regime fighters to surrender, as they are surrounded inside a captured building.

Insurgents from all three groups — HTS, Ahrar al Sham, and Faylaq al Rahman — are pictured wearing the same red and white headbands.

It is possible that still other organizations are involved in the fighting. For example, Jaysh al Islam has had a strong presence in the area surrounding Damascus, especially in the eastern Ghouta region.

There is an ebb and flow to such battles, so it is too early to tell where the offensive will lead. The rebels (including jihadists and Islamists) have controlled only small pockets in the areas immediately surrounding the center of Damascus. The new effort is likely intended to clear out more space for them to operate, but also to make the Assad regime and its allies fight on additional fronts. Since losing Aleppo late last year, the insurgency has been looking for an opportunity to gain the initiative once again.

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s propaganda photos from the fighting in Damascus, including images of two suicide bombers. (WARNING: Some of the images are graphic):

Ahrar al Sham’s propaganda from the offensive in Damascus:

Faylaq al Rahman’s propaganda from the battle in Damascus:

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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3 Comments

  • Art Sadin says:

    The photographs are riveting. Thanks for including them in the article. It really brought the reality of combat to life. The quality of the photographs is incredible. Although still photos, one can imagine them almost as video. I have no political position on the groups involved. I do believe that the Assad regime, father and son, have operated as their own private meat processing of the Syrian people from slaughterhouse mass murders down to the retail work of a butcher shop. If the U.S. had taken out Assad’s air power after the famous “red line” was crossed, the basic elements of civil society would have been in control shortly thereafter. The failure to do so opened the door to radical Islamic extremists including IS, Iran, Hezbollah, the Shiite militias and various AQ formations. Now the number of deaths is in calculable and the number of displaced in the many millions
    I opposed the invasion of Iraq. Look how it has hurt the standing of the U.S. and destabilized the region. I wonder if Cheney and Rumsfeld knew or cared that they were removing the only counterweight to Iran in Arab world. Now, the KSA is supposed to play that role but it cannot even contain an insurgency in Yemen. It is truly a paper tiger when compared to Iran. Obama gave the green light to Iran when it failed to rein in its proxy in Syria. We now know that the reason for this was that the mullahs told him no nuclear deal, such as it is, and Obama bowed down to them. Not since the disaster of Vietnam have successive presidents of opposing parties cost the American people and Western Civilization so much. 1975 marked the end of that conflict with clear finality. It caused no domino effect and was self-limiting to V.N., Laos and Cambodia
    The West is going to pay a high price for a long time for the horrible errors of the last two presidents. The impact has already spread through the entire Middle East, many countries in Africa and Western Europe. There is no end in sight of the conflict nor finality as far as Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon and the insurgencies on the African continent. Radicalized Islamic terrorists of whatever origin are going to continue to plague Western Europe.

  • Arjuna says:

    I thought the Free Syrian Army had joined the Confederate States’ Army in the dustbin of history. We are just prolonging the misery for the poor Syrians and creating more refugees for Europe. Accept defeat, oh losers in your trillion dollar HQ in NoVa. You blew it. Give Assad his country back!

  • KerKaraje says:

    But the pictures deceive in that they do not show the huge Jihadist casualties.
    SOHR gave the number as 34 loyalist KIA and 31 rebel KIA.

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