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Syrian Rebels Unmask Regime’s ‘Underground City’

Damascus and Harasta, Syria

Damascus and Harasta, Syria

A Syrian Islamist group released a video showing what appears to be a sprawling underground city the Syrian regime allegedly used to command military operations in Damascus and elsewhere in the war-torn country.

The Army of Islam, one of the largest Islamist rebel groups in Damascus suburbs, said the operation to take over the “Auxiliary Staff Center” came after fierce battles with President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in the town of Harasta, northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The offensive was launched in September by the former commander of the rebel group, Zahran Alloush, who was killed last December by a Syrian government airstrike.

The center was used “as a second building to rely on in case something happens to the main one inside the capital,” Oula A. Alrifai, a Syrian analyst who does research on Syria security, told VOA.

Alrifai said losing the center was a blow to the Syrian regime in Damascus where it has maintained a strong presence despite rebel attacks in the suburbs since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

Rebels took control of the facility in early February, according the video that was released by the Army of Islam this week.

“In the beginning we thought it was just a hideout,” said Abu Samir, a rebel commander. “But then we were surprised to discover that the place had paved roads and multiple exists. …The three-floor facility has been equipped with advanced technology. Our experts believe the regime had it for emergency situations to direct the war in the entire country.”

The underground building was a headquarters for security apparatus and military intelligence agencies, according to analysts.

Rebel commanders said they were able to retrieve secret military documents that belonged to the Syrian army. Rebels said they found a section inside the building that was designed to plan chemical weapons attacks. VOA could not independently verify these claims.

While the rebels are touting the takeover of the center, their gains have been few in recent months, according to reports. The Syrian regime, aided by Russian air power and Iranian-led troops on the ground, has been pounding rebel forces.

“Regardless of success by rebels, the regime is not going to become weaker in Damascus,” a local journalist in Damascus who preferred anonymity told VOA.