Syria regains control of Damascus, after seven years of fighting

Soldiers ride atop a tank in destroyed parts of the Yarmouk camp neighborhood in south Damascus, Syria, on May 21, 2018.
Soldiers ride atop a tank in destroyed parts of the Yarmouk camp neighborhood in south Damascus, Syria, on May 21, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIRUT (NYTIMES) - The Syrian capital of Damascus and its surrounding suburbs are entirely free of rebel fighters for the first time in seven years, the government said on Monday (May 21).

That milestone was achieved when the last Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters reached an agreement with the government over the weekend to leave the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the neighbouring town of Hajar al-Aswad and head to one of the militant group's last strongholds in eastern Syria.

Their retreat, confirmed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, ended weeks of fighting that had reduced the camp, once home to about 160,000, to smoking, dusty rubble.

After the final convoy of militants left, the government released a statement saying, "The Syrian General Command of the Army and Armed Forces announced Damascus and Damascus countryside entirely safe areas after fully cleansing al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Yarmouk Camp of terrorism."

Syrian state television broadcast scenes of jubilant celebration among government troops entering the sorry landscape. Soldiers fired in the air and waved Syrian flags as residents looked on and buses with black curtains in their windows took away the last of the 1,600 ISIS fighters who had been in the camp.

Syria's president, Bashar Assad, lost control of large sections of the country in the early years of the war, which began in 2011, and seemed headed for defeat before Russia intervened on his behalf in 2015.

The combination of Russian airpower and Iranian ground forces turned the tide, leading to Monday's declaration.

For proponents of the Syrian government, Monday was a day for celebration. But the losers were bitter about their fate.

"Yes, the regime, backed by the Russians, managed to eliminate the armed opposition from around Damascus," said Rami al-Sayyed, a Syrian and former resident of Yarmouk, from Janderiss camp, in the northern countryside still controlled by the Syrian rebels.

"But the opposition still exists," he said. "Russia managed to achieve its goals in politics and the military in Syria because of the opposition's ignorance."