“Islamic State has Damascus in its crosshairs” wrote Times of Israel analyst Avi Issacharoff in an analysis that was published this weekend. Issacharoff paints a bleak picture of the future of the central government of President Bashir al-Assad, who faces the slow but steady advances of both the Islamic State and Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) toward the Syrian capital Damascus.
Jaish al-Islam already has strongholds in the two Damascus suburbs of Douma and Ghouta al-Sharqiyah, and Islamic State holds parts of the former Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk, that has been the scene of intensive fighting that caused most of the population to flee.
Assad has shown that he is willing to defend Damascus at any price. Just last week, his air force bombed a crowded marketplace in central Douma, killing and wounding hundreds of citizens. The Syrian dictator has also used chemical weapons against the population of the Jaish al-Islam strongholds in the Damascus area. In August 2013, Ghouta al-Sharqiyah was attacked with chemical weapons, an incident that almost triggered U.S. intervention in Syria and led to international action to strip Assad of his chemical weapons arsenal.
Despite these war crimes, Assad has not been able to stop the Islamic State and the Islamist coalition from closing in on the seat of his government.
The Islamic State has already advanced to Bir Qassab, 40 kilometers southeast of Damascus.
A map published on August 13, 2015 shows ISIS is moving to strangle the Syrian capital while at the same time trying to cut off the supply routes from Damascus to the coastal plain in Latakia and Tartous, which is home to Assad’s Alawite minority. The grey areas are under the control of the Islamic State, the green fields are controlled by the Nusra dominated Islamist coalition Jaish al-Islam, and the pink areas with the red dots are still under control of the regime. Assad has lost 18% percent of Syrian territory so far this year and is now in control of only five-sixths of the country.
Islamic State is also trying to set up camp at the Lebanese border. As Western Journalism reported last week, Islamic State is “threatening Hezbollah’s rule in the Qalamoun Mountains in west Syria and reportedly is trying to seize border crossings on the Syria-Lebanon border. These border crossings are the last ones under regime control–all the other border crossings in Syria are controlled by rebels and Islamic State.”
The map shows why the Islamic State opened an offensive against Hezbollah’s rule in the border area. If the group succeeds in connecting the areas under its control in this part of Syria, Damascus will be cut off from the coastal plain and the port cities.
Issacharoff notes that Assad’s army appears to be exhausted and that “one major incident, such as the fall of a base or a strike against a leader of the regime or the army, could bring about the collapse of Bashar’s military system and the abandonment of the capital.”
This is precisely what seems to be happening right now. The Jaish al-Islam coalition is battling Assad’s forces at the Abu Al-Duhur military air base in northwestern Syria. The base has been the scene of intense fighting before; but this time, the opposition seems determined to seize control of the air base.
The intensification of the fighting and the looming collapse of Assad’s rule caused the parties to resort to even more brutal tactics. Last week, regime forces beheaded eight ISIS fighters during a battle in the area of the Kweris airbase. Assad’s air force uses large amounts of barrel bombs against not only the opposition but also against the civilian population. The attack on the central marketplace in Douma last week was only one in a long series of such attacks.
Islamic State sank to a new low when it used the outbreak of AIDS among its fighters to develop a new sort of suicide attack. AIDS-infected ISIS members who contracted the disease – as a result of the rape culture in Islamic State – are requested (or forced) to volunteer for suicide attacks that will kill two birds with one stone. The attacks will ensure the spread of the disease among the enemy and ensure that ISIS has enough suicide bombers.
ISIS reportedly also used chemical weapons against its opponents for the first time. Doctors at a hospital in Marea, a city 25 kilometers north of Aleppo (Syria’s second largest city), reported they had treated over 30 people who suffered from suppurating blisters after ISIS had shelled their neighborhood.
“On Friday, (a) US official confirmed that the Isil (ISIS) had used ‘a class-one chemical agent’ against Peshmerga forces in an attack earlier this month. Military sources had previously told American media that the substance was a mustard agent,” The Daily Telegraph reported.
Some observers fear that in the final stage of the battle for Syria, Jaish al-Islam and Islamic State will cut off the water supply to Damascus to ensure the surrender of Assad’s forces. This tactic has been used before, but only temporarily. In July, for example, Jabhat al-Nusra cut off the water supply to Damascus to force Assad’s army and Hezbollah to suspend a military operation against its forces in the area of Zabadani, close to the border with Lebanon.
Analysts of Jane’s Defence told the International Business Times that Assad is now facing defeat for the first time in the devastating civil war. “The bigger picture is that Assad is not going to last much longer,” they said.
Issacharoff doesn’t agree; he thinks the balance of power will not change anytime soon in Syria. But recent developments tend to prove the analysts of Jane’s right.
Assad’s fate, however, will be dependent on Iran and Hezbollah -his main allies- and on the coalition against Islamic State.
The latest news is that Turkey and the United States will soon launch a ‘comprehensive operation’ against Islamic State that must result in an ISIS free buffer zone in Syria. Washington and Ankara completed talks about the joint operation on Sunday.
However, a closer look at the plan reveals that the operation will be limited to the border area between Turkey and Syria and aims to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria by the Kurdish PYD militia.
Last week, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) announced that it had moved to establish autonomous zones in southeast Turkey. The move has further increased tensions in the Kurdish areas in Turkey and Syria and could lead to all out war between the Kurds and Turkey.
This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Equipping You With The Truth