Albin Szakola

Damascus rebels: Jaysh al-Islam
running assassination cell

Tension has mounted between Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam, the most powerful factions in the besieged eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

Shadow fighter. (AFP/Abd Doumany)

BEIRUT – Tension has continued to mount between the two largest rebel groups operating in the outskirts of Syria’s capital, with Faylaq al-Rahman accusing its ostensible ally Jaysh al-Islam of operating an assassination cell.


Faylaq al-Rahman issued a statement Tuesday announcing that a member of Jaysh al-Islam—the most powerful faction in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus—had been involved in an assassination attempt against Sheikh Khaled Tafour, the former top judge in the besieged region.


On March 28, gunmen opened fire on Sheikh Tafour—also known as Abu Sleiman—as he was driving between the towns of Misraba and Hammouriyeh. The former judge suffered a gunshot wound to his thigh, while his bodyguard died in the hail of gunfire.


The assassination bid follows a similar attack in the same area on October 13, 2015 that killed Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Ayyoun, who at the time was serving as a chief judge in the United Judiciary of eastern Ghouta, which is dominated by Jaysh al-Islam.


Faylaq al-Rahman said that it managed to capture one of the perpetrators of the attack against Tafour, and following investigations the suspect “admitted that he belongs to a covert assassination cell in Jaysh al-Islam’s security apparatuses.”


“The [Jaysh al-Islam] member made serious and dangerous confessions,” the rebel group—which is considered the only faction capable of matching Jaysh al-Islam’s military presence in eastern Ghouta—added.


Faylaq al-Rahman called on Jaysh al-Islam to “submit to the laws of God and [hand over] all of its members involved in assassinations and other [security] issues to an independent tribunal acceptable by all revolutionary cadres in eastern Ghouta.”


Although the two rebel factions fight side-by-side against the regime, members of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam have engaged in firefights with each other on two occasions in recent weeks in the Faylaq al-Rahman stronghold of Zamalka in the eastern outskirts of Damascus.


Faylaq al-Rahman launched a further broadside against Jaysh al-Islam in its statement, calling on the rebel group “not to be an instrument of oppression and bloodshed.”


However, the opposition faction stressed that “we will stay with our brothers the mujahedeen of the Jaysh al-Islam in the same trench to repel our enemy in the defense of our people in the blessed Ghouta.”


Jaysh al-Islam fires back


Hours after Faylaq al-Rahman’s fiery accusation, Jaysh al-Islam issued a statement denying a role in the assassination bid against Sheikh Tafour.


“We deny… all the references contained in the statement of the Information Office of our brothers in Faylaq al-Rahman] about the existence of secret assassination squad belonging to the Army of Islam,” the statement said.


The group also said it “supports any decision taken by the United Judiciary against Mohsen Abdelsalem Badreddine,” the suspect who made the startling confessions to Faylaq al-Rahman.


Jaysh al-Islam insisted that Badreddine had left the rebel group in 2014 and is wanted by the rebel group “on suspicions of links to the terrorist group ISIS.”


“The statement that mentioned [Badreddine] currently belonging to Jaysh al-Islam is not true, and instead aims to create sedition and fabricate internal disputes.”


“Incitement between rebels does not serve the ‘justice of the cause’,” Jaysh al-Islam cautioned.


East Ghouta tension


Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman—both of which are part of the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta—previously fought each other on March 1, however no casualties were reported at the time and neither factions issued a statement on the incident.


The clash came after tensions mounted in Damascus’s eastern Ghouta suburbs on February 18 after fighters from the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union merged with Faylaq al-Rahman hours after Jaysh al-Islam had launched a public campaign aiming to entice the Islamist fighters to join its ranks instead.


Jaysh al-Islam published a video that claimed to show Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union members in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma joining the larger Islamist group. In the video, an alleged Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union fighter said he and his compatriots had “enlisted” in Jaysh al-Islam because of “poor treatment and a lack of care for us as mujahedeen.”


“We call on our brothers in the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union to emulate our example [and] follow in our footsteps [by] enlisting in Jaysh al-Islam,” the spokesperson said.


However, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union fired back, accusing Jaysh al-Islam of intimidating its members in Douma and forcing them into making the video statement.

“Jaysh al-Islam is surrounding several of the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union’s  bases in eastern Ghouta and forcing members [of the eastern Ghouta sector] to make statements [saying that they have] enlisted in Jaysh [al-Islam] after it learned of Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union’s merger agreement with Faylaq al-Rahman,” Ajnad al-Sham spokesperson Waiel Olwan said on Twitter.


He also re-tweeted a post by Twitter user Alaa al-Ahmad that said Jaysh al-Islam had “stormed one of the Union’s bases in eastern Ghouta and filmed the enlistment of one of the Union’s divisions [into] Jaysh al-Islam by force of arms and heavy machine guns.”


“Any talk of a merger with [Jaysh al-Islam] is fabricated. The Union will be dissolved in its entirety into Faylaq al-Rahman,” the post added.


A day later, Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam issued a joint statement announcing that both sides had resolved the dispute over the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union merger.


“After the meeting that was concluded between Faylaq al-Rahman leadership and Jaysh al-Islam leadership the misunderstanding that took place… was resolved and incorporation of the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union into Faylaq al-Rahman was given Jaysh al-Islam’s blessing,” the statement announced.


The two sides confirmed that this was a step that “contributes to the unification of ranks and brings success to joint action in a manner that serves the interests of the Ghouta in particular and the revolution in general.”


The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union was formed in November 2013 as a conglomeration of five Islamist brigades active in the outskirts of Damascus. In 2014, it was considered the second largest Islamist group fighting the regime in the capital; however its profile has been partially eclipsed by Faylaq al-Rahman.


Faylaq al-Rahman was also formed in November 2013, bringing together a number of Free Syrian Army-affiliated units under the command of Abd al-Nasr Shmeir, a defected Syrian army officer who is now one of the top rebel leaders in eastern Ghouta.


The Institute for the Study of War classifies Faylaq al-Rahman as one of the only twelve “powerbroker” groups or factions powerful enough to determine “the success of military operations against either the Syrian regime or ISIS.” Jaysh al-Islam is the only other rebel faction in eastern Ghouta listed by the ISW as a “powerbroker.”


Amin Nasr translated the Arabic-language source material.

Jaysh al-Islam has denied it is operating an assassination squad. (AFP/Abd Doumany)

The [Jaysh al-Islam] member made serious and dangerous confessions.