BEIRUT: At least 18 pro-Syrian regime combatants have been killed in 24 hours of fighting in southern Damascus against Daesh, a monitor said Tuesday.
That brought to at least 52 the number of pro-government fighters killed in nearly a week of military operations against Yarmuk and adjacent Daesh-held neighborhoods, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
No confirmation of the casualties was available from Syrian officials, who do not usually disclose losses within army ranks.
The Britain-based Observatory said at least 35 militant fighters were also killed during the same period.
There are an estimated 1,000 Daesh fighters left inside the enclave in the capital’s southern neighborhoods, which include Yarmuk and the adjacent districts of Hajjar Al-Aswad and Qadam.
In Qadam on Tuesday, soldiers could be seen pushing a fresh advance, backed by Syrian government air strikes and artillery fire, during an organized press tour.
Columns of black smoke were snaking up from a monochrome sea of devastated buildings.
The salvos of shelling paused briefly, and the steady crack of machine gun fire took their place.
Barricades sealed off every street in Qadam, which was once a bustling stop on Syria’s train line but whose carriages are now abandoned and left in ruins.
From their perch in Yarmuk — which has a view of the presidential palace in Damascus — militants have fired rockets on the capital’s center.
According to state news agency SANA, five civilians were killed Tuesday when a mortar shell crashed into a market area.
The Observatory said the fighting on the ground was fierce, as Daesh attempted a desperate defense of one of its very last bastions in the country.
The Syrian government plans to recover an opposition-held pocket north of Homs city soon after it completes surrender deals with armed groups around the capital Damascus, a Syrian government minister said on Tuesday.
In recent days rebels in two other enclaves northeast of Damascus, Dumair and east Qalamoun, surrendered and agreed to be transferred by bus to opposition territory in northern Syria.
Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister responsible for national reconciliation, told Reuters in an interview the government would focus on recovering an opposition-held pocket north of the city of Homs after securing the areas around Damascus.
“The issue will not be a long time coming after the final resolution in Qalamoun,” Haidar said.
Haidar said the government had for a while been dropping leaflets and communicating with rebels in the opposition-held towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla in northern Homs province.
“Today there is serious work in that area,” he said.
“Armed groups wait to feel the seriousness and determination of the state’s military action before they approach serious discussion of a reconciliation agreement.”
Haidar said such reconciliation deals are also on offer to rebels in southern Syria, where a de-escalation zone was agreed by the United States and Russia last year.
“The options are open: full reconciliation or military action where necessary.”
But he indicated that retaking areas around Damascus and Homs — the last rebel areas entirely besieged by the government — were the immediate priorities.
After the crumbling of its so-called “caliphate” including its main urban bastions in Syria’s north and east, Daesh is estimated to hold five percent of the country’s territory.
Daesh entrenched itself in large parts of Yarmuk in 2015 and has managed to stay on since then.
The Syrian army’s focus on Yarmuk, once the country’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, comes as part of its campaign to secure the capital.
It recently retook the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta, then reached a string of deals last week for the transfer to northern Syria of rebels who had been allowed to remain in villages near Damascus as part of 2016 reconciliation agreements.
A successful operation in Yarmuk, which is anticipated, would seal the regime’s reconquest of the capital, a major prize for a resurgent President Bashar Assad.
More than 350,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad broke out in 2011 and millions have been displaced.