East Ghouta’s Central Sector Fully Controlled by Syrian Government Forces

Operation Damascus Steel - 31 Mar 2018.png

Our previous article on Operation Damascus Steel (the ongoing military offensive in East Ghouta) can be found here.

On 31 March, the last buses from East Ghouta’s Central Sector (which consists of Irbin, Zamalka, Ayn Terma, Jobar, and Hazeh) left the area on their way to Greater Idlib. These buses were the last of a total of 710 buses which have evacuated rebels, their families, and anti-government civilians from the area over the past eight days.

Number of Evacuees (According to pro-Syrian Government sources)

Date Number of Buses Number of Total Evacuees Number of Militants
24 March 17 981 Not given
25 March 81 5,440* Not given
26 March 100 6,749 1,620
27 March 101 6,432 1,521
28 March 89 5,290 1,374
29 March 128 7,003 2,143*
30 March 129 6,279* 1,968
31 March 65 2,935 927
Total 710 41,109 >9,553

*Alternately, 5,435, 1,243 (probably a typo), and 6,276

With more than 41,000 people moved, this evacuation effort is the most massive to take place thus far during the Syrian Civil War. The evacuees included around 10,000 rebels, most of whom belonged to Faylaq al-Rahman, the dominant rebel faction in the Central Sector. A smaller number belonged to the Salafi-Jihadi group Tahrir al-Sham.

ghouta groups diagram - 31 March

Negotiations are still ongoing in regards to the ultimate fate of the massive rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, based in the city of Douma. All speculation should be taken with a grain of salt until an actual agreement is published.

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

A full-size version of the chart can be found here.

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East Ghouta Rebel Factions Fall Like Dominoes

Operation Damascus Steel - 24 Mar 2018

On Sunday, 18 February, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) initiated a heavy aerial bombardment of the rebel held East Ghouta pocket – the opening salvo in a campaign known as Operation Damascus Steel. The ground offensive began a week later, on 25 February. Contrary to some expectations (and wishful thinking), rebel defenses have collapsed and pro-government forces have scored victory after victory for a month. The green-eyed Syrian flag now casts its shadow on perhaps 80% of the land area of the old East Ghouta pocket; the remnants of the rebels are besieged in the urban areas and have already capitulated or are negotiating their surrender.

The Syrian government and the Russians (who are reportedly involved in the negotiations) have taken advantage of the deep divisions between the Ghouta factions and have engaged in separate negotiations with the groups. The government’s strategy of military action combined with aggressive negotiations has paid off, and the factions have fallen like dominoes.  Four of the five groups – among them several thousand fighters – have surrendered after just 27 days of ground operations.

Status of East Ghouta Rebel Groups

The first to go was a small, semi-independent group in Hammouriyah named Liwa Abu Musa al-Ashari (LAMA). LAMA split from Faylaq al-Rahman in October 2016 as part of Alwiyat al-Majd but was coerced into rejoining in May 2017. However, LAMA never fully integrated with Rahman, and Rahman reportedly attacked its headquarters in Hammouriyah on 11 December. It’s hardly a surprise that the group took the first chance it got to surrender to the Syrian government. When pro-government forces reached the edge of Hammouriyah on 15 March, the group immediately handed the town over. It’s fighters, numbering no more than 150, along with a small number of civilian relatives and supporters, were evacuated to Greater Idlib on the same day.

Next to capitulate was Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta. On 21 March, after a few days of on-again, off-again fighting and negotiations, the group agreed to vacate the town. The evacuation was massive, spanning two days (22 and 23 March), making use of 89 buses, and involving 4,386 individuals, 1,413 of whom were militants. Judging by these numbers, the vast majority of the Ahrar fighters chose to relocate to Greater Idlib rather than reconcile with the Syrian government. These fighters will add strength to Jahbat Tahrir Suriya (JTS), the Ahrar-led coalition which has been batting HTS for supremacy in Greater Idlib for five weeks (the fighting has died down since early March, but clashes continue to occur on a daily basis).

Two days after Ahrar’s surrender, Faylaq al-Rahman – the faction which dominates East Ghouta’s “Central Sector” (Irbin, Zamalka, and Ayn Terma) and was once regarded as an example of a well-run and resilient FSA-brand group – suffered a catastrophic collapse. In hours, Pro-Government forces captured the city of Ayn Terma in full (for comparison, pro-government forces spent weeks during a Summer 2017 offensive struggling to capture a few blocks of that city). That same day, Rahman agreed to follow in the footsteps of Ahrar and ride Syria’s signature Damascus-Idlib bus route.

The exact details of the evacuation are not yet fully clear, with Ivan Sidorenko reporting that the operation will begin at 9:00 on 24 March (today) at the al-Ghubayr mosque in Irbin. Riam Dalati, on the other hand, reports that it will begin no earlier than the 25th.

The deal includes a prisoner/hostage exchange, Russian assistance, and a provision that allows Rahman to take light weapons and other items (heavy weapons are not allowed, and Rahman has already begun destroying them; HQs and depots went up in flames on the 23rd, before the start of the evacuation).

The official Faylaq al-Rahman twitter account has remained conspicuously silent in wake of the deal.

Faylaq al-Rahman is not known to have any significant presence in Idlib; the group’s only major presence outside of Ghouta is in the East Qalamoun (Nasiriyah-Jayroud-Ruhaybah pocket). It is not clear if the group will be able to successfully reconstitute itself in Idlib. If it is not, its fighters will wither return to civilian life of join one of the plethora of groups active in Idlib. Assuming Rahman does remain intact, the question that will immediately have to be faced is what to do in regards to the ongoing infighting in Idlib.

Within the Ghouta pocket, Rahman has had better relations with HTS than with either Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham (Note: JaI and Ahrar are allies and the northern branch of JaI merged with Ahrar in early 2017). However, bad blood aside, Rahman is ideologically far closer to JTS than to HTS, and Rahman occasionally denounces HTS in its media releases. Furthermore, other FSA groups that were previously sympathetic to HTS sided with JTS in the latest round of infighting. Thus, a Rahman-HTS alliance is incredibly unlikely. It’s more likely that Rahman – assuming it survives as an independent group – declares support for JTS or chooses to remain neutral. Another possibility is that Rahman becomes part of Turkish-backed anti-YPG coalition sometimes known as the TFSA. This option would be complicated by the fact that the Turkish border with Greater Idlib is controlled fully by HTS. However, one pro-rebel social media source reports evacuees will have the option of going to al-Bab. If this is true, it indicates Turkey intends to recruit some of Faylaq al-Rahman to the TFSA.

Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), embedded in Faylaq al-Rahman territory, is also included in the most recent evacuation deal. The group has only a minor presence in East Ghouta; its importance has declined since taking large losses during April-May 2017 clashes. This small presence, however, has played an outsize role in propaganda, frequently being used by pro-government media to justify attacks on East Ghouta and by Jaysh al-Islam to justify attacks on Faylaq al-Rahman. Its evacuation will have little effect aside from providing a minuscule boost to HTS in Idlib.

Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), based in Douma, is the one East Ghouta group that has not yet fallen. On social media, Jaysh al-Islam supporters like to portray their group as more hawkish and confrontational toward the Syrian government than its rivals in Ghouta. However, in light of JaI’s poor performance on the Hawsh al-Dawahirah front and the fact that its stronghold of Douma will soon be completely isolated and surrounded by Syrian troops, it’s hard to imagine JaI holding out for much more than a week or two. One thing that is for certain is that JaI will soon be reunited with the groups it once clashed with in exile.

It is reported that JaI has agreed to release around 3,500 hostages (including a large number of Alawites kidnapped from Adra in 2013 – the same ones seen in an infamous November 2015 video being used by JaI as caged human shields). This agreement is likely part of a larger agreement still in negotiation that will provide for JaI’s evacuation.

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

Rebels Launch Attack on Vehicle Base Near Damascus

East Ghouta - 15 Nov 2017.png

On 14 November 2017, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), began an offensive against a Syrian Army vehicle base east of Damascus. The base is located in a wedge of government-controlled territory between the rebel-controlled cities of Harasta and Irbin. Yesterday’s was the first major attempt by the rebels to seize the base since August 2015.

The attack was initiated with an HTS SBVIED. It then proceeded  from two points – Ahrar al-Sham attacked from their stronghold of Harasta and Faylaq al-Rahman attacked from Madyara.

The most significant advance came from the north. Rebels reportedly cleared all of al-Ajmi district and also took a command centre on the northern edge of the base.

The close cooperation between Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman is interesting considering the major clashes that took place in Irbin between the two groups in early August. Those clashes followed months of hostility that began in May when Rahman attacked Ahrar buildings in Irbin. They ended on 9 August with a truce agreement.  The current offensive is indicative of rapprochement between the former foes. The relationship between Rahman and Douma-based Jaysh al-Islam (JaI) remains strongly adversarial, with JaI releasing a statement just a week ago condeminging Rahman and HTS. Ahrar was not mentioned in the statement, demonstrating that JaI still considers Ahrar an ally in spite of Ahrar’s improved relations with Rahman.

As of now, the base has not fallen, but government forces have taken significant losses and have not yet recovered lost positions.

A total of 12 pro-government fatalities have been identified via social media. It is likely that the true number is higher, as six more deaths were reported today (15 November) and some fatalities are never reported.

Ahmed Ali Suleiman.jpg
Ahmed Ali Suleiman, from Wadi al-Baraka, Tartous Governorate
Ali Murshid Ismail
Ahmed Murshid Ismail, from Sreijis, Tartous Governorate
Azzam Ismail Ahmed
Colonel Azzam Ismail Ahmed, from al-Sindiyana, Hama Governorate
Bassel al-Sultani
Bassel Khayrat al-Sultani, from Qardaha, Latakia Governorate
Ghadir Ibrahim Saeed
Ghadir Ibrahim Saeed, from al-Qutailibiyah, Latakia Governorate
Ghadir Habib Ibrahim
Ghadir Habib Ibrahim, from Qabu Sukus, Latakia Governorate
Hatem Rashid Balul
Hatem Rashid Balul, from al-Tawanin, Tartous Governorate
Khadr Ghassan Ismail
Khadr Ghassan Ismail, from al-Hattaniyah, Tartous Governorate
Marah Nadir Salman
Marah Nadir Salman, from al-Dulaybah, Hama Governorate
Maytham Hassan.jpg
Maytham Mashabik Hassan, from Qarqafti, Tartous Governorate
Mayhub Ali al-Aitah
Mayhub Ali al-Aitah, from al-Eidiyah, Latakia Governorate
Walid Khawashqi
Major General Walid As’ad Khawashqi, from Jawbat, Latakia Governorate

Note: a few reports state Mr. Balul was actually killed in the Beit Jinn area, but most claim Harasta.

ٌRebel casualties have not been reported but are believed to be heavy.

A full-sized version of the above map, which was created using 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.