A rebel fighter of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Rebel groups that have received backing from Syrian President Bashar Assad's Arab and Western foes on Wednesday captured a border crossing with Jordan, the first time Damascus has lost it since the start of the conflict, sources on both sides said.
In a separate advance, Islamic State fighters seized most of a vast camp for Palestinian refugees on the outskirts of Damascus from other insurgents in a bid to capture a major foothold close to Assad's seat of power.
The gains by groups at opposite ends of the insurgent spectrum show the pressures still facing Assad, who has sought to shore up his control over western Syria including the border zone with Jordan and Israel - the last notable foothold of the mainstream rebels who have largely been eclipsed by jihadists.
They come just days after an alliance of Islamist groups captured the northwestern city of Idlib from the government. The Nusra Front, al-Qaida's wing in Syria and one of the groups involved, announced on Wednesday the city would be run according to sharia law.
The ultra-hardline Islamic State already controls swathes of eastern Syria and Iraq and is being targeted by a US-led campaign of airstrikes.
Until Wednesday's assault on the Yarmouk refugee camp, the group did not have a major presence in the area around the capital, where insurgents have mainly been loyal to other groups.
The Yarmouk refugee camp, which was home to half a million Palestinians before the conflict began in 2011, has been held by anti-Assad insurgents and besieged by government troops since the early days of the war. It is a few kilometers from the heart of Damascus, which is still firmly in government control.
Mirroring the way Islamic State has grown elsewhere in Syria, its fighters seized control of areas of the camp from other insurgents, helped by rebels from the rival al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front who switched sides, a political activist in the area said.
"They pushed from the Hajar Aswad area and Nusra fighters have joined them, they have pledged loyalty to Daesh (Islamic State)," the activist said, speaking via Skype.
Anwar Abdel Hadi, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Damascus, said: "(Islamic State) went into Yarmouk today. There are clashes between the militants at the moment."
The United Nations said it was extremely concerned about the safety and protection of Syrian and Palestinian civilians there. It estimates the population of Yarmouk at about 18,000, with most of its residents having long since fled.
Government officials could not be reached for comment.
Hassan Hassan, an analyst and author of a book about Islamic State, said the group had long wanted a foothold close to the capital but that it was unlikely to be able to storm the center.
"The regime has established strong checkpoints and infrastructure to prevent forces from actually getting inside Damascus. But they are edging closer."