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Albin Szakola & Ullin Hope

Damascus rebels merge amid
Jaysh al-Islam “intimidation”

The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union announced Thursday the “full incorporation” of its fighters in eastern Ghouta into Faylaq al-Rahman.

Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union. (YouTube)

BEIRUT – Two prominent rebel groups operating in the Syrian capital's eastern Ghouta suburbs have merged together, while one of the factions has accused Jaysh al-Islam, the largest insurgent force in the region, of trying to sabotage the move.

 

The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union announced Thursday the "full incorporation" of its fighters in eastern Ghouta into Faylaq al-Rahman "so that we may progress as one on the path of our revolution."

 

The Islamist group explained that the merger was "an endeavor on our part to unify rebel ranks and create a united front" amid the "danger of the period through which the proud Syrian revolution is passing."

 

However, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union stressed in a follow-up statement overnight Thursday that its fighters in the western Damascus suburbs of Daraya and Moadammiyyeh as well as in southern Damascus would still operate under the group's banner and were not part of the merger.

 

Thursday's merger announcement came hours after Jaysh al-Islam—an ally of both groups—issued a video purporting to show Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union fighters joining Jaysh al-Islam, while the Ajnad al-Sham itself said that its members had been forced into speaking in the video.

 

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."

 

Both Faylaq al-Rahman and Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union are part of the Unified Military Command of Eastern Ghouta, which Jaysh al-Islam leads.

 

Tension between Jaysh al-Islam and Ajnad al-Sham

 

A Jaysh al-Islam video purports to show Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union members joining the larger Islamist group.

 

Just as the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union and Faylaq al-Rahman moved toward their merger, Jaysh al-Islam launched a public campaign aiming to entice Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union fighters to join its ranks instead.

 

Hours before the public announcement of the new rebel merger, 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.

 

Meanwhile, Ajnad al-Sham said in a statement that its "brothers in Jaysh al-Islam have raided several of the Union's bases in Douma."

 

The rebel group exhorted all "Islamic scholars, rational minded people and mujahideen to give the greater good precedence over partisan interests."​

Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union members in eastern Ghouta merged into Faylaq al-Rahman. (YouTube)

Ajnad al-Sham said in a statement that its "brothers in Jaysh al-Islam have raided several of the Union's bases in Douma."