Amid Factional Conflicts, the Regime Prepares to Reclaim Eastern Ghouta

Nothing after May 15, 2017 was as it had been before. It began with the operations to remove opposition fighters and residents from the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, in accordance with the agreement between the Syrian regime’s forces and the factions that oppose it. The neighborhood, which lies northeast of the capital, is considered the first line of defense for the Syrian opposition in Eastern Ghouta for confronting the regime’s forces. This agreement comes after two other similar agreements were made in neighborhoods near Qaboun: Tishreen and Barza. After executing these agreements, the squares of Ghouta became more exposed to the regime’s forces and their armed support groups. The most important obstacle that remained for the regime was the neighborhood of Jobar, which is on the outskirts of Damascus and is the strongest line of defense for the different factions of Ghouta. 

However, in spite of these risks, internal conflicts between factions in Ghouta, consisting mainly of Jaysh al-Islam and the Al-Rahman Legion, have not stopped. As a result, the battles have continued, citizens have died, and the regime lies in wait to see who will prevail. The actors in the battles have also changed recently with the entrance of Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham to the battlefield.

August is well-known for its high temperatures, but the new battles in Ghouta turned up the heat this summer. This time, Jaysh al-Islam and the Al-Rahman Legion are fighting on one side against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), most of whose members were previously part of al-Nusra Front, and their ally (and enemy in Idlib), Ahrar al-Sham.

In discussing the latest battle developments in Ghouta, one Ghouta activist named Mazen al-Riqi says, “Ahrar al-Sham and HTS are fighting on one side against the Al-Rahman Legion, as opposed to what is happening in Northern Syria,” an indication of the battle in Idlib and its environs where the two groups are currently fighting each other.

However, these issues seem much more complicated internally. Al-Riqi summarizes, “Jaysh al-Islam launches an attack on the Al-Rahman Legion in Saqba, while the Al-Rahman Legion repels an attack from the regime’s forces from Ein Tarma on one side and an attack from HTS and Ahrar al-Sham on the other. Both were attempts to control Saqba, the legion’s stronghold.” The activist adds, in his regional accent, “it’s crazy,” which is to say that things are very complicated.

According to the activist, the truce made between Jaysh al-Islam and the Legion calls for fighting against HTS and Ahrar al-Sham, with the goal of either destroying them once and for all or incorporating them with the other factions. However, at the same time, the Syrian regime is bombing Ghouta and Ein Tarma under the pretext of HTS being there. This seems to be a precursor for the group’s removal from Ghouta to Idlib, while the regime aims for the most important strategic position, Jobar. It is worth mentioning that the regime stepped up its attacks on Jobar in April.

Recently, Wael Alwan, spokesperson for the Al-Rahman Legion, warned of a huge land offensive by the Syrian regime to retake control over Jobar, adding that the Legion is ready to confront the attack expected to occur from Tayyiba and Ein Tarma to the east of Jobar.

Alwan’s warnings come after the regime’s violent escalation in their assault on Jobar in recent days, especially after the Al-Rahman Legion’s announcement on Monday that over twenty members of the regime’s Fourth Division were killed, dozens injured, and one soldier captured in Jobar.

Regarding the Al-Rahman Legion’s operations in Ghouta, media activist Khaled Abu Jaafar says, “The Al-Rahman Legion is fighting al-Nusra Front and forcing Ahrar al-Sham out of the sector under its control in the region. They are also fighting the regime on the Jobar and Ein Tarma fronts, while Jaysh al-Islam is fighting al-Nusra Front in Al-Ash’ari, taking complete control of the Al-Ash’ari region.”

According to activists in Ghouta, several meetings were held between the Al-Rahman Legion and Ahrar al-Sham over the last two days, after which they agreed to resolve their differences and stop the current fighting between the two sides in Eastern Ghouta.

The Omawi News Agency, an organization active on Telegram that specializes in news on Ghouta, confirms the meeting was held through mediation by the Shariah Board of Damascus, whose leader, Sheikh Hussein Darwish, was also in attendance. It published the terms of the agreement, which stipulates the “immediate cessation of hostilities between the two factions, the release of all prisoners held by each side, the return of weapons, an end to persecution of each factions’ members, and reopening of the roads between Ahrar’s main stronghold in Harasta and the Al-Rahman Legions stronghold in central Ghouta.”

The agreement, if fully implemented, would come after three days of fighting between the two factions, which were preceded by casualties, injuries, and arrests that added to the hundreds lost in several separate confrontations between the two groups.

This may be the foundation for the final conflict and Jaysh al-Islam and the Al-Rahman Legion’s endeavor to expel Ahrar and HTS, depending on the Astana talks, in which the latter two groups refused to participate. It may also just be a power struggle, no more and no less. Here is the big problem: are there any guarantees that new conflicts between the Legion and Jaysh al-Islam will not occur, such as the ones that happened during the past and current year, in which hundreds were killed on both sides?

Beyond the situation’s complications, the internal conflict between opposition groups in this region works towards the regime’s benefit. In many instances over the past and current year, the regime has continued to fight and attack specific areas to achieve its goals, the latest of which was removing Qaboun from the Damascus equation. Now, it is prepared to end the Jobar saga, which lies northeast of the capital and has been a major issue for the regime’s forces for more than three years. If it can achieve its goal of controlling the area, then this will pave the way toward the whole of Eastern Ghouta. Thus, Ein Tarma, Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hamouriyah, Arbin and Harasta will all become completely exposed to the regime’s forces, thereby securing the eastern Damascus countryside and joining it to the “useful Syria” project, effectively from the capital’s front lines.

Hasan Arfeh is a freelance Syrian journalist based in Turkey.

Image: Photo: A fighter from Free Syrian Army's Al Rahman legion walks near piled sandbags in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria July 17, 2017. Picture taken July 17, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh