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.