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: