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:


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.

Complete List of 91+ Bombings in Homs Since 2012

Since 2012, a deadly string of bombings in the city of Homs has claimed the lives of at least 470 people – mostly civilians – and has injured at least 1,700. These attacks have come in the form of car bombs, small IEDs, and suicide bombings. Though such attacks have occurred in other Syrian cities, Homs stands out due to the sheer number of attacks, the fact that most have targeted civilians rather than political or military installations, and the fact the frequency of attacks has not abated since 2013, as in other cities, but, rather, has increased.

Until now, no comprehensive effort had been made by anyone to catalogue these attacks. Extensive research on our part has revealed the total number of bombings to be at least 91; these bombings have occurred as part of at least 67 separate incidents. An additional five incidents are disputed or lack corroboration. Below is a full list of attacks in chronological order, including dates, locations, casualty information, any claims of responsibility, and sources. Attacks are assumed to be against civilians unless otherwise noted.

Update (Dec. 2017): The total number of attacks has now reached at least 93.

Date Location Casualties Group Notes Source(s)
2/12/12 Hamra 15 killed
24 injured
7/12/12 Insha’at 0 killed
27 injured
13/2/13 Hamra 1 killed http://bit.ly/2p9l3Bp
28/2/13 Akrama 4 killed
15 injured
21/3/13 Wadi al-Dahab 2 killed
20+ injured
4/4/13 al-Wa’er 0 killed
0 injured
12/4/13 al-Wa’er 0 killed
0 injured
27/5/13 al-Wa’er 6 killed
40 injured
8/6/13 Nuzha 7 killed
10 injured
8/7/13 Akrama (x2) 6 killed
40 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2o5C1kO
18/7/13 al-Wa’er 0 killed
0 injured
24/10/13 Nuzha 3 killed
40 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oLCVpr
27/2/14 Akrama 7 killed
20 injured
6/3/14 al-Arman 13 killed
30 injured
17/3/14 Zahra 6 killed
20 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2p8jrrw
27/3/14 al-Arman 1 killed
11 injured
9/4/14 Karm al-Luz 25 killed
107 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oHQpmk
14/4/14 Akrama 4 killed
30 injured
18/4/14 Akrama 14 killed
50 injured
29/4/14 Abbasiya (x2) 40-55 killed
116-130 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oLCVpr
25/5/14 Refinery Bridge
13 killed
40 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oHKD44
12/6/14 Wadi al-Dahab 9-18 killed
40-60 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://on.wsj.com/2p8ljQW
19/6/14 Akrama 6 killed
40 injured
24/6/14 Wadi al-Dahab 1 killed
23 injured
27/7/14 al-Arman 7 killed
21 injured
30/7/14 Wadi al-Dahab 2 killed
30 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oHKJc8
1/10/14 Akrama (x2) 53+ killed
144 injured
Targeted the al-Makhmouzi school. At least 48 of the dead were schoolchildren http://bit.ly/2oLPsZI
29/10/14 Zahra 12 killed
30 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2p8u2CJ
6/12/14 Zahra No corroboration http://bit.ly/2oLuKJn
21/1/15 Akrama 7 killed
71 injured
26/3/15 Southern Entrance Jabhat al-Nusra Targeted a military warehouse http://bit.ly/2p8BP3c
10/4/15 al-Arman 2 killed
12 injured
IS https://t.co/LrCYYj9NwQ
30/4/15 Karm al-Luz 0 killed
0 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2nKcYlk
6/5/15 Nuzha Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2oHIUvJ
12/5/15 Wadi al-Dahab
4 killed
28 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2nRx3He
18/5/15 Zahra 0 killed
0 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra No corroboration http://bit.ly/2p8m0Kb
3/6/15 Zahra 0 killed
0 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2o9e9y9
14/6/15 Akrama 0 killed
10 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2p8tYTt
14/6/15 Karm al-Luz 1 killed
26 injured
30/6/15 Akrama
0 killed
4 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2ofSmFz
7/7/15 Akrama 0 killed
1 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2o9eX68
12/7/15 Unknown (x2) Jabhat al-Nusra Allegedly targeted 2 gov. security buildings. No corroboration http://bit.ly/2p8m0Kb
26/8/15 Insha’at 5-6 killed
30-37 injured
Disputed; some claim an IED; others (including SANA) report rocket fire was to blame http://bit.ly/2oHtOq2
29/8/15 Zahra 4 killed
20 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2njG53M
16/9/15 Zahra 0 killed
8 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2nR8U3P
18/9/15 Wadi al-Dahab (x2) 2 killed
11 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2o9c6du
20/9/15 Zahra 1 killed
3 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra Targeted a car carrying SAA http://bit.ly/2njFnUa
22/9/15 Zahra 1 killed
12 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2o4ielH
23/9/15 Akrama 1 killed
8 injured
4/10/15 Zahra 1 killed
21 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2o4mCkB
10/10/15 Wadi al-Dahab 4 killed Ahrar al-Sham Assassination of Col. Hassan Mahmoud Issa http://bit.ly/2o98JTM
20/10/15 Hamra 0 killed
4 injured
8/11/15 Akrama (x2)
Wadi al-Dahab
1 killed
19 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra Insha’at attack was on a Ba’ath party HQ; the rest were on civilians http://bit.ly/2o4qz92
12/12/15 Zahra 16-20 killed
54-140 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2o4dJrk
17/12/15 Akrama Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2nRlVKB
18/12/15 Bab al-Sabaa Jabhat al-Nusra No corroboration http://bit.ly/2nRfPd3
28/12/15 Zahra 32 killed
90 injured
IS http://reut.rs/1mdWxhd
2/1/16 Akrama 0 killed
0 injured
15/1/16 al-Arman 0 killed
7 injured
22/1/16 Karm al-Luz
Wadi al-Dahab
0 killed
14 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2nR7tSS
26/1/16 Zahra (x2) 22-26 killed
100 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2nRm28I
27/1/16 Hamra 0 killed
0 injured
21/2/16 Zahra (x2) 57 killed
100 injured
IS http://ab.co/1PPeKbN
31/3/16 Akrama (x2-3)
Karm al-Luz
Wadi al-Dahab
0 killed
6 injured
Jabhat al-Nusra http://bit.ly/2nK5kHE
5/9/16 Zahra 4 killed
10 injured
IS Targeted gov. checkpoint https://t.co/5QpU6r5AxT
26/11/16 Wadi al-Dahab 0 killed
0 injured
15/12/16 Zahra 4-8 killed IS Targeted gov. field hospital http://bit.ly/2p86xJY
9/2/17 Zahra 3 killed
16 injured
25/2/17 Ghouta & Mahatta (x5) 40-42 killed
50 injured
Tahrir al-Sham Targeted 2 major gov. security HQs http://bit.ly/2p8pBaO
14/3/17 Wadi al-Dahab 1 killed
2 injured
29/3/17 Zahra 5 killed
7 injured
23/5/17 Zahra 4 killed
16-32 injured
IS http://bit.ly/2qQU7ue
5/12/17 Akrama 8 killed
18 injured
IS IS claimed the attack was against soldiers, but most victims were civilians http://bit.ly/2AxyqnT

Something that’s important to note is that this chart does not include incidents of artillery fire or airstrikes. The attack has to have occurred outside of an active front line, and there has to have been no apparent military objective (i.e. capturing ground).

This type of attack first occurred in Homs in December 2012, and has been used primarily or solely by anti-government groups; Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) in particular have claimed many of the attacks. As a consequence, almost all of the incidents listed above occurred in government-controlled areas, mostly Alawi-majority districts such as Akrama, Karm al-Luz, Nuzha, Wadi al-Dahab, and Zahra. Sunni-majority districts with large concentrations of government supporters, including Hamra and Insha’at, have also been hit, albeit less frequently. The attacks have come with a variety of goals, including assassinations and elimination of military or political installations, but many of them – including the most deadly – have been aimed at generating the largest possible massacre of civilians.

The single deadliest incident was a double bombing in Zahra on 21 February 2016. It killed at least 57 people, mostly civilians. It was claimed by IS. Another mass-casualty incident was the 29 April 2014 double bombing of the crowded al-Abbasiya circle near Zahra, which occurred while negotiations were ongoing for the evacuation of rebel fighters from Old Homs. At least 40 people were killed, mostly civilians. Perhaps the most infamous incident was the double suicide bombing of the al-Makhmouzi elementary school in Akrama on 1 October 2014. At least 48 schoolchildren were killed. While the school bombing has gone unclaimed, the Abbasiya bombing was claimed by Jabhat al-Nusra the next day.

Unlike IS supporters who accept that endorsing attacks on civilians is a prerequisite of supporting IS, many online supporters of Nusra – now divorced from al-Qaeda and part of the Syrian Salafi-Jihadi conglomerate Tahrir al-Sham – deny the group targets civilians. This is quite odd considering the group itself has not denied this, but, rather, has boasted about their acts. Official Nusra statements, which can be found in the sources column of the chart, make this fact abundantly clear.

Presently, the future outlook for security in Homs is positive. In late March, negotiators representing rebels in al-Wa’er, the last rebel-controlled district, signed an evacuation agreement with the government. Rumors are currently swirling about an upcoming government offensive against the rebel-controlled North Homs countryside, which is tied culturally to Homs and is home to many Homsi rebels who were bused there in 2014. The IS-controlled East Homs countryside (the area north of Furqlus), which is likely the origin of IS attacks, will probably be abandoned by IS in the near future as the walls come closing in on Raqqa and Deir al-Zour. While it’s unlikely we’ve seen the end of bombings in Homs, for Homsis, the worst is probably over.

Any additional bombings that do occur will be added to this list.