WATCH

Syria Declares Damascus ISIS-free for First Time in Nearly Seven Years

Pro-Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks to recover al-Hajar al-Aswad district and the adjacent Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp

In this photo released Tuesday, May 15, 2018 by the Syrian official news agency, SANA, a convoy of Syrian government forces and police hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad
SANA via AP

The Syrian army pushed Islamic State militants out of a south Damascus pocket on Monday and declared the Syrian capital and its surroundings “completely safe” from militants for the first time in nearly seven years.

Pro-Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks to recover al-Hajar al-Aswad district and the adjacent Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp since driving rebels from eastern Ghouta in April.

A state television presenter said the recovery of al-Hajar al-Aswad meant the area south of Damascus had been completely cleared of insurgents.

Syrian military declares Damascus free from ISIS, militants

The ultra-hardline jihadist group now controls only two besieged desert areas in eastern Syria, while another insurgent group that has pledged loyalty to it holds a small enclave in the southwest.

A temporary humanitarian ceasefire had been in place since Sunday night in al-Hajar al-Aswad to allow women, children and old people leave, state media said early on Monday.

Army soldiers fired into the air in celebration and held Syrian flags, against a smashed cityscape of shattered buildings and widespread destruction.

Buildings and walls were pocked-marked from bullets and shell-fire, metal satellite dishes were bent and scorched, and the dome of a mosque had a gaping hole near its base.

On Sunday, a war monitor said fighters had begun withdrawing from the area towards Islamic State territory in eastern Syria under a surrender deal, but state media said fighting continued.

The war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said on Monday that buses had already started leaving south Damascus for Islamic State areas in eastern Syria.

While Assad has vowed to win back "every inch" of Syria, the map of the conflict suggests a more complicated time ahead from now on.

The U.S. military is in much of the east and northeast, which is controlled by Kurdish groups that want autonomy from Damascus. It has used force to defend the territory from pro-Assad forces.

Turkey has sent forces into the northwest to counter those same Kurdish groups, carving out a buffer zone where anti-Assad rebels have regrouped.

In the southwest, where rebels hold territory at the Israeli and Jordanian border, Assad faces the risk of conflict with Israel, which wants his Iranian-backed allies kept well away from the frontier and has mounted air strikes in Syria.