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In Besieged Eastern Ghouta, Rebel Infighting Increases Civilian Suffering

While the Syrian government ramps up its offensive on the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, local residents have to also contend with bitter rivalries between opposition groups, who have carved up the besieged enclave.

Written by Wisam Franjieh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A Syrian rebel fighter from Faylaq al-Rahman fires a weapon in Ain Terma, in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus, July 17, 2017. AFP/ABDULMONAM EASSA

The Syrian government and allies have shelled rebel positions in the Eastern Ghouta region, just 15km east of Damascus, nearly every day since a cease-fire agreement collapsed earlier this month. But the residents of one of Syria’s best-fortified and last remaining rebel strongholds tell Syria Deeply the latest bombing campaign is not their only concern.

Infighting between the Eastern Ghouta’s main opposition factions has figured as one of the most ruinous aspects for the area’s roughly 400,000 residents, who have been living under partial government siege since 2013.

Their stories show that life in rebel-held Syria is very much about maneuvering the complex maze of allegiances and animosities among opposition groups and that civilians often bear the brunt of this race for control and influence.

The Rebels of Eastern Ghouta

The Eastern Ghouta area hosts a number of Syrian rebel factions, but it is largely controlled by four main opposition groups. Jaish al-Islam, a hard-line militant group founded in 2013, is the most prominent fighting force in the eastern suburbs of the capital. The group controls most of the eastern portion of region, including the town of Douma – the largest settlement in the area.

Faylaq al-Rahman, an official affiliate of the Free Syrian Army, and Jaish al-Islam’s main rival, is the second most prominent group. It controls much of central and western parts of Ghouta, including the strategic Jobar and Ain Terma districts, which have recently emerged as prime targets for the Syrian government.

Extremist militant groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), on the other hand, have only limited control over the Damascus suburbs. The former controls the suburb of Harasta, which is adjacent to central Damascus, in addition to small patches of territory scattered across the rest of the region. HTS controls a number of smaller districts such as Arbin, al-Ashari and Bait Naim. Neither could rival Eastern Ghouta’s two main rebel groups.

The Fault Lines

The rebel groups of east Ghouta have fought with one another regularly since 2016. The latest round of fighting broke out at the end of April 2017, between Faylaq al-Rahman and HTS against Jaish al-Islam, after the latter attacked HTS and Faylaq al-Rahman positions in the towns of Arbin and Kafr Batna. At least 95 people were killed in the first three days of fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Over the next two months, fierce battles would ensue for control of key areas in the eastern suburbs of the capital, including the districts of Zamalka, Beit Sawa, Arbin, al-Ashari and Hamouriya.

An ongoing government offensive on the districts of Jobar and Ain Terma has also boosted infighting as Jaish al-Islam moved to secure more territory from Faylaq al-Rahman and HTS, who are bogged down in clashes with the Syrian government on the two fronts.

The situation became even more complicated last week when clashes in the Hamouriya district broke out between former allies Faylaq al-Rahman and HTS for the first time in months. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a fight broke out when an HTS fighter refused to stop at a Faylaq al-Rahman checkpoint, killing one HTS fighter and wounding two Faylaq al-Rahman rebels.

The Cost of Infighting

An outcome of infighting between opposition groups is the carving up of territory in Eastern Ghouta into zones of influence, with the area’s main opposition groups setting up checkpoints and restricting the exit and entry of civilians from territory they control.

The story of Mahrous is just one example. While en route to a hospital in a Faylaq al-Rahman-controlled area, rebels stopped the 27-year-old resident of Douma at a checkpoint. Because he hails from a district controlled by Jaish al-Islam, he told Syria Deeply that he was “beaten and insulted” by fighters manning the checkpoint. They also accused him of working as an undercover agent for Jaish al-Islam. He was barred from crossing the checkpoint and has since avoided trips to the hospital, out of fear of death or arrest, he said.

These territorial divisions have made life insufferable for Eastern Ghouta’s residents, and restricted their access to areas where they work or own land.

“They should get out and fight far away from us,” Ahmad Hamza, a resident of the Faylaq al-Rahman-run suburb of Hamouriya, told Syria Deeply.

The 53-year-old farmer, who owns a plot of land in a nearby Jaish al-Islam-controlled area, said the recent infighting and territorial division cost him his crops and livelihood. Checkpoints set up by Jaish al-Islam have prevented him from accessing his land and irrigating his crops. As a result, his corn is now dead and he has no way of supporting himself.

Taym al-Suyoufi, a media activist living in the Jaish al-Islam stronghold of Douma, has also seen his work interrupted by territorial divisions. He said he cannot cover events in central or western parts of the region because of HTS and Faylaq al-Rahman checkpoints. However, he pointed out, HTS checkpoints are much worse for media activists.

“As someone working in media, it is more likely to get arrested at the checkpoints of HTS,” Taym said. He said he was almost arrested once when some HTS fighters saw his camera, but they let him go because he knew a prominent HTS commander.

The checkpoints are reportedly also causing a great strain on the Eastern Ghouta’s education sector, according to Rateb Ali, who oversees coordination between the region’s schools for the rebel-run education directorate in the area. He said teachers are regularly stopped and barred from crossing into areas where they work.

“Some teachers are too scared to move between areas, fearing that they might be arrested at the checkpoints,” he said.

Safaa, a resident of Hamouriya, is one of them. She did not complain about HTS checkpoints but rather those set up by Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman. The 33-year-old school teacher said that fighters from Faylaq al-Rahman, who control the area where she lives, barred her from crossing into Douma, claiming to be “concerned” about her safety in Jaish al-Islam territory. She also claimed that these militiamen “harassed” and “abused” her.

As a result, she said, she has often had to miss work.

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