Isis is close enough to the Syrian President’s seat of power that it could circumvent the Syrian regime’s security belts and enter central Damascus via tunnels, a Middle East expert has warned.
Isis is now just five kilometres away from President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Presidential Palace after militants invaded the sprawling Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, which has over 18,000 refugees living within its walls.
Omar Ashour, an Associate Fellow for the Chatham House think tank and a Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter, said the situation in Damascus is now “critical” and could explode into a prolonged war within Yarmouk. The outcome of this tense situation depends upon the next steps taken by the extremist group and President Assad’s regime within the coming weeks.
In an unusual alliance, the Syrian government has offered military support to Palestinian fighters battling Isis in order to flush the group out of the camp. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad met with a delegation from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and other factions this week. “Syria and the PLO are determined to fight terrorism, which has reached Palestinian camps in Syria, notably Yarmouk," he said after delegates met. This offer is one that has reportedly been accepted by Palestinian factions.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
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Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
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Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
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A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
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A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
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A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
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A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
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Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
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Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
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A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
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A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
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Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
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Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Civil Defence members try to put out fire
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Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
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Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
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Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
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A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
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Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
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Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
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Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
Activists say regime forces have already started “indiscriminately” bombing the refugee camp and Isis positions in neighbouring Hajar al-Aswad in response to the invasion. However, Mr Ashour told The Independent the next few weeks could see the Syrian military take a strategic step back from the situation and allow Isis to fill the vacuum created in its absence.
“Isis would do part of the job which is fighting other Islamist and revolutionary groups, launching an attrition war,” he said. “The regime would then finish them off afterwards by aerial bombardment. But if it got out of hand and Isis was able to capitalise on it, then the regime would have made a miscalculation. It would be a very close deal.”
Yarmouk was infiltrated by militants from the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other militant groups over a year ago. Mr Ashour believes that what will follow will be a prolonged war between groups for control of the camp, weakening everyone inside it.
He warned that in the unlikely event Isis does form an alliance with Islamist groups inside instead of fighting and focused their attention on entering central Damascus, they would present a very serious threat to the President.
“I think what is more likely to happen is that Isis will keep fighting in Yarmouk. Their approach is about centralisation; if there is no centralised command and control under the leadership, then they will keep fighting. It is more likely that they will drain the other forces, then achieve victory and achieve centralisation. This is what the regime is calculating.
“If they do not stop fighting in the next few days, we are looking at a prolonged attrition war with no side winning. Isis will probably send for reinforcement, the southern front and some of the groups there may become involved and it could galvanise into a full scale war.
“There are a string of shops and streets just a few miles away in central Damascus – if they dug a long tunnel they would get there without a problem.
“But, if Isis do decide to form a truce with all of the others then we could see more of a focus on the regime – although it has already demonstrated how opposed to truces they are. If there is a significant fighting force in Yarmouk and it was able to coordinate together, I think this would be a very serious threat. Remember, one or two tunnels and they could be into central Damascus.”
Elijah J Magnier, the chief international correspondent for Al-Rai Media, has been reporting on the situation from close to Yarmouk in Damascus. He said the regime is already responding to the threat posed by Isis by bombarding Yarmouk and Isis positions in Hajar al-Aswad with devastating ‘volcano missiles’.
“Assad is not happy about having Isis south of Damascus and just kilometres from the city centre,” he said.
“The Syrian Army is already stretched everywhere in Syria and he wouldn't like to have another new front. Therefore, the collaboration of all Palestinian groups and supporters of the Syrian army is needed to defeat both Isis and Nusra in the camp. It is a dangerous situation for all."
He agreed that a lasting coalition between Isis and Nusra within the walls of the camp would pose a grave danger to Assad, but believed this outcome was highly unlikely.
“Nusra can close an eye to Isis but it will not join them now. There are many common fronts between Nusra and Syrian rebels in Daraa, Idlib, and Aleppo. Nusra won't risk this alliance to join an unpredictable Isis.”