The Syrian army and its allies advanced into insurgent-held eastern Ghouta on Wednesday as civilians living in the nearby Jaramana suburb of the capital identified 44 fatalities in a jihadi mortar attack on a market, which targeted families shopping ahead of the Mother’s Day holiday.
Other mortars struck Damascus’s western middle-class residential Mezze district.
While battle raged between Jaysh al-Islam and Syria's army south of Douma, the largest town in eastern Ghouta, opposition sources and officials announced a Russian-brokered deal with Ahrar al-Sham (Free Men of the Levant). On Thursday, 1,500 fighters and 6,000 family members are set to leave the strategic town of Harasta for the northwest insurgent-dominated Idlib province.
Ahrar al-Sham, a radical fundamentalist faction, is the third-largest in eastern Ghouta.
If the deal is implemented, it will be the first for eastern Ghouta, a bastion of militant fundamentalists, since 2013. The two largest groups, Saudi-sponsored Jaysh al-Islam (Islamic Army) and Qatari and Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Rahman (Legion of Rahman), have so far refused to accept a deal similar to those which have returned urban and rural areas of the country to government control over the past four years.
Jaramana and the Christian neighbourhoods of the Old City are the chief targets of jihadi strikes from eastern Ghouta. Once a Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus, Jaramana has a Sunni Muslim majority, in part due to an influx of families fleeing the insurgent takeover of eastern Ghouta.
Mortars also regularly strike the St Thomas’s Gate and Eastern Gate neighbourhoods of the Old City, adjacent to eastern Ghouta, on Sunday mornings when residents are gathering for church services.
South of Damascus, Islamic State fighters have driven Syrian army troops from the suburb of Qadam, which was evacuated last week by jihadis from al-Qaeda's Tahrir al- Sham (Levant Liberation) and other groups. Islamic State (also known as Isis), which killed 62 Syrian troops in the effort, has been present in Qadam and the nearby Yarmuk and Hajjar al-Aswad suburbs since 2012.
Following its expulsion from the northern city of Raqqa, Isis continues to hold these areas plus small pockets of territory in the south. The capture of Qadam and recent attacks on US-backed Kurdish forces in eastern Deir al-Zor province have shown that the group remains a potent threat.
Separately, in the countryside north of Aleppo, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have delivered blankets, water tanks and other supplies to some of the 100,000 civilians, half of them children, without water, food and shelter following an exodus from the northwestern Kurdish town of Afrin.
As the town emptied after the expulsion of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) by Turkish troops and surrogate Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia, unchecked FSA jihadis and rebels looted homes, businesses and farms and carried off vehicles, cattle and sheep.
By unleashing FSA allies on Afrin, Turkey revealed its intention to purge its inhabitants and replace them with loyalist Syrian Arab and Kurdish refugees. The Turks are determined to exclude from the border zone Kurds connected to the US-supported YPG, which last year captured Raqqa from Isis and 25 per cent of Syrian territory to the east. Ankara considers the YPG a "terrorist" offshoot of Turkey's insurgent Kurdish movement.
Shortly after the fall of Afrin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to continue his offensive "until we entirely eliminate" the YPG presence along the entire Syrian-Turkish border. This could mean clashing with Nato ally the US, which has embedded 2,000 special forces with the YPG in spite of Turkey's vehement opposition.
Buoyed by the capture of Afrin, Erdogan has also threatened to drive Turkish Kurdish militants from decades-old bases in northern Iraq if Baghdad fails to oust them.