Albin Szakola

Rebel heavyweights clash
outside Damascus

Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman fought each other in eastern Ghouta's Zamalka.

Zamalka. (Facebook/LensYoungDimashqi)

BEIRUT – The two most powerful rebel groups in the outskirts of Syria’s capital have once again engaged in clashes, the latest instance of opposition infighting in the beleaguered eastern Ghouta region.


“Fierce clashes raged between Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam in Zamalka, leading to casualties on both sides,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Wednesday morning.


The monitoring NGO said the cause of the fighting remains unknown; however both insurgent factions quickly issued statements in an attempt to clarify the incident in Zamalka, which is a Faylaq al-Rahman stronghold.


Faylaq al-Rahman accused Jaysh al-Islam members of “breaking into their headquarters and infringing on its sanctity” on Tuesday afternoon.


“This is not the first time that the Army [of Islam] encroached on us. We used to remain silent for the sake of the public interest… but [the Army of Islam’s actions] reached an intolerable level,” the rebel group—which is considered the only faction capable of matching Jaysh al-Islam’s military presence in eastern Ghouta—said.


Faylaq al-Rahman appealed to Jaysh al-Islam to “stop these actions to direct its weapons to the correct place: on the fronts with the oppressive enemy.”


However, Jaysh al-Islam fired back at Faylaq al-Rahman with their own statement, accusing Faylaq al-Rahman of a “blatant violation” of one of its headquarters in Zamalka.


The Islamist fighting group—the strongest in eastern Ghouta—said that fighters following a militant named “Abu al-Abbas” opened fire on Jaysh al-Islam members, leaving a number wounded.


Interestingly, Jaysh al-Islam blamed a “group from outside the area” of pressing Jaysh al-Islam fighters to “encircle one of the Faylaq al-Rahman centers until they stopped [their] blatant encroachment.”


Jaysh al-Islam also voiced surprise at Faylaq al-Rhman’s statement “that contradicts reality.”


“We call on our brothers in Faylaq al-Rahman not to be dragged into discord and strife.”


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.”


NOW’s English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language source material.

Eastern Ghouta's Zamalka. (Facebook/LensYoungDimashqi)

Faylaq al-Rahman appealed to Jaysh al-Islam to “stop these actions to direct its weapons to the correct place: on the fronts with the oppressive enemy.”