Update: Rebel Infighting in East Ghouta

Rebel Infighting in East Ghouta 2

Our previous update can be read here.

Within the sphere of inter-rebel conflict, there have been two major developments in East Ghouta in the month of May. The first is the failure of the initial Jaysh al-Islam offensive. The second is the emergence of the previously quiet Ahrar al-Sham as a major participant in the fighting.

The month began with a turn of events. After several days of losing ground, Faylaq al-Rahman and Tahrir al-Sham began pushing back Jaysh al-Islam.

On 1 May, Jaysh al-Islam was expelled from the village of al-Ashari. Fighting was also reported in the neighboring hamlet of al-Muhammadiyah. That area was confirmed to be in the hands of Faylaq al-Rahman and Tahrir al-Sham by 3 May.

On 3 May, Rahman and HTS entered the much larger population center of Irbin and captured most of it. The next morning (4 May), JaI counterattacked and recovered some points. By the end of the day, however, the group had been expelled entirely from the city.

That same day, Rahman and HTS retook Beit Sawa and Madyara. By this point, most JaI gains had been reversed.

The next morning, JaI announced the end of its offensive. Bizarrely, the group tried to spin their failed operation as some sort of victory, claiming they had succeeded in their primary goal of crippling HTS. On 6 May, Rahman issued a statement declaring victory and confirming that they would not launch any further attacks on JaI. In spite of the statements, fighting has continued, albeit at a lower intensity. Since 5 May, clashes between Rahman and JaI have mainly been taking place in the vicinity of Mesraba, which was captured by JaI on 28 April. Two casualties from sniper fire were reported in the city on 8 May. As of now, the town is still controlled by JaI.

Perhaps more interesting is the consolidation of East Ghouta rebel groups. Such consolidation often occurs during bouts of infighting, as smaller groups seek shelter with larger ones. In East Ghouta, six groups have become four in just a matter of days.

After pushing back JaI, Rahman and HTS turned their attention to the smaller, neutral factions of East Ghouta. On 3 May, Rahman and HTS began assaulting Hammouriyah, home to Alwiyat al-Majd, a small faction which defected from Faylaq al-Rahman in October 2016. Majd issued several statements declaring neutrality.

On 8 May, after five days of clashes, Majd chose to rejoin Faylaq al-Rahman.

Clashes between the Rahman/HTS coalition and neutral Ahrar al-Sham were first reported on 4 May. On 7 May, it was reported that Rahman/HTS had besieged Ahrar headquarters in Irbin. No more news emerged until 11 May, when it was reported that their headquarters in Irbin had been stormed and a commander arrested. Right now, it appears that Ahrar has been expelled from Irbin, though that is not 100% confirmed.

So far, clashes have not spread to Jobar, which is jointly controlled by Ahrar, HTS, and Rahman. If clashes do spread to Jobar, it will likely mean a resumption in fighting across East Ghouta at 28 April-4 May levels of intensity.

Rahman’s apparent aim is to force smaller factions into its fold. This strategy of bullying worked perfectly with Majd, but in the case of Ahrar, it has gone awry.

On 11 May, the same day as the Irbin attack, Fajr al-Umma, previously an ally of HTS, joined Ahrar. In spite of losses taken in Irbin, Ahrar is now the third largest faction in Ghouta.

It is likely that we will now see the emergence of an Ahrar-JaI alliance to counter the extant HTS-Rahman axis.

Such an alliance is fairly natural, as, up north, Ahrar recently absorbed JaI’s Idlib branch and the two groups have both opposed HTS hegemony in Greater Idlib.

In other Ghouta-related news, the town of Beit Nayem – controlled by JaI – has been under attack by the Syrian government since 8 May. JaI has managed to retain control of the town.

The drama has also spread to the Barzeh-Qaboun pocket, though there it has remained online only. On 7 May, rebels in Barzeh signed a “reconciliation” agreement with the Syrian government. Immediately, JaI supporters on social media began accusing Liwa al-Awal, the suburb’s local FSA outfit, primary rebel faction, and ally of Rahman, of preventing the entry of JaI fighters (they claim JaI had a plan to invade Damascus via Barzeh) and being in cahoots with the Syrian government. Cartoons such as this one show their viewpoint:

C_Y14WNXYAAeqGp

One rebel fighter also accused “the people of Barzeh” (presumably referring to Liwa al-Awal) of hoarding food.

The Barzeh evacuation will reportedly include up to 8-10,000 people in seven batches. Thus far, the evacuation has gone smoothly. This is in contrast to a parallel evacuation agreement in Qaboun (held by Ahrar, HTS, JaI, and Rahman) which has not been implemented at all. This does lend a bit of credence to the claim that Liwa al-Awal has a more cordial relationship with the Syrian government than other factions.

A full-size version of the attached map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here.

Rebel Infighting in East Ghouta: Map and Analysis

Rebel Infighting in East Ghouta Final

The past few days have witnessed the fiercest infighting in rebel-held East Ghouta in a year. The participants include the usual suspects – Faylaq al-Rahman (Rahman Legion) and Tahrir al-Sham (Sham Liberation Committee) on one side and Jaysh al-Islam (Islam Army) on the other.

East Ghouta has a long history of rebel infighting. This article will provide a brief overview of said fighting. For a more in-depth look, read “Into the Tunnels” by Aron Lund, which covers the history of the region back to 2011.

In November 2015, after a relatively stable period of about a year, the Syrian Army and its allies began whittling away at the East Ghouta pocket. In December, Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam and the most powerful man in East Ghouta, was killed. This greatly upset the power balance in the pocket, and tension between groups began to rise. In February 2016, Ajnad al-Sham, an Islamist group reportedly with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, merged with Faylaq al-Rahman. In March, Jabhat al-Nusra formed an unlikely alliance named Jaysh al-Fustat with Fajr al-Umma, an ideologically ambiguous Harasta rebel group which is more concerned with profiting from smuggling tunnels than fighting the regime. Together, these two coalitions were enough to challenge Jaysh al-Islam’s hegemony.

In late April, a coalition of Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaysh al-Fustat attacked Jaysh al-Islam. Rahman and Fustat are generally regarded the victors of the 2016 clashes, as they seized weapons and ground from Jaysh al-Islam. Jaysh al-Islam was expelled entirely from Jobar, Irbin, and Zamalka. A new frontline formed on the northern edge of the village of Mesraba.

In the midst of the infighting, the Syrian Army scored a major victory, capturing all of al-Marj, the breadbasket of East Ghouta. After this, the warring rebel factions signed a truce. From this point on, tensions remained high in the pocket, but neither side dared launch an offensive against the other.

After the fall of al-Marj in May, the Syrian Army and its allies shifted their focus to the easternmost area of the pocket, an area controlled entirely by Jaysh al-Islam. The first town to fall was Bahariyah, in mid-June. Tal Kurdi, one of the most important Jaysh al-Islam strongholds outside of Douma, fell on 31 October. By January 2017, about a third of the pocket had been returned to government control, entirely at the expense of Jaysh al-Islam.

In spite of these losses, Jaysh al-Islam still was able to maintain a commanding presence in the pocket, owing to its continued control over Douma, the pocket’s largest city. In addition, Faylaq al-Rahman had problems of its own. To begin with, the group was little more than a loose alliance of local neighborhood FSA units. Beginning in mid-2016, smaller brigades began defecting. A group named Alwiyat al-Majd (Glory Brigades), established on 25 October, was the largest of these defectors.

Faylaq al-Rahman was further weakened along with its ally Tahrir al-Sham (the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra) in March 2017, when together they took heavy losses during a failed offensive against the Syrian Army in Jobar. Presumably, some of the manpower used in this offensive was taken from the front with Jaysh al-Islam, creating an imbalance of power which directly led to this week’s events.

On 28 April, the one-year anniversary of the start of the 2016 clashes, a new war broke out. This time, Jaysh al-Islam was on the offensive. During the first two days, the group wrested control of Aftris, al-Ashari, Beit Nayem, Beit Sawa, Maydara, Mesraba, part of Hazeh, and, most importantly, the city of Irbin from Faylaq al-Rahman and Tahrir al-Sham. The latter groups’ positions in Hammouriyah, Saqba, and even Zamalka were threatened. In a counterattack on 30 April, however, Rahman managed to push Jaysh al-Islam out of Hazeh and recapture Aftris.

Thus far, fighting has remained localized in the southwestern portion of rebel-held East Ghouta, and has not spread to Harasta or to the Barzeh-Qaboun pocket. Liwa al-Awal and Fajr al-Umma, the local FSA outfits in Barzeh and Harasta, respectively, are allied to the Rahman/Tahrir coalition but have stayed out of the clashes.

Ahrar al-Sham, Alwiyat al-Majd, and some other, smaller factions have remained neutral.

A full version of the map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here.

Map: The Situation in the Yarmouk Valley

The Situation in the Yarmouk Valley (Final)

Over the past few days, rumors have been swirling about a potential Jordanian or even American intervention in the Yarmouk Valley against the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army (Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid in Arabic).

The group in question (hence referred to as JKW) fights with all other rebel factions in the area and maintains amicable relations with the Islamic State organization. It was formed in May 2016 as a merger of several IS-sympathetic factions in Dara’a. In February 2017, after many rebels left the front to join the “Death before Humiliation” offensive against the Syrian Army in Dara’a city, JKW launched an offensive and managed to capture Adwan, Jalin, Sahem al-Joulan, and Tasil, roughly doubling its territory. A series of small counteroffensives by the anti-JKW rebels have all resulted in failure.

Though JKW has not given bay’ah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and is not part of IS proper, the two organizations have ties and are ideologically similar. This closeness provides the casus belli for an intervention. Such an intervention would allow for the formation of another foreign occupation zone (referred to by backers as a “safe zone”) in addition to the extant one in Northern Aleppo.

Such an intervention would almost certainly be encouraged by U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been advocating the idea of “safe zones” since 2015.

Right now, it remains to be seen whether such a plan will come to fruition, and if it does, whether it will come as part of a larger operation. Some speculation suggests Jordan’s interest may extend far beyond the Yarmouk Valley – all the way to the eastern Deir al-Zour town of al-Bukamal, the scene of a failed attack by the American proxy group “New Syrian Army” in mid-2016. A successful capture of the town by American and Jordanian-backed forces would give the U.S. and Jordan full control of the Iraqi-Syrian border, would hamper the Iranian-Syrian alliance, and would allow for the declaration of a large “safe zone”.

A full-size version of the map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here.