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Opposition infighting gives Assad regime opening in Eastern Ghouta

After clashes broke out in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian regime exploited the situation to regain control of the Damascus suburbs.
A man rides on a motorbike as another one walks past damaged buildings in the rebel-controlled area of al-Nashabyia town in Eastern Ghouta, Syria April 13, 2016. Picture taken April 13, 2016. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh  - RTX29YRZ

ISTANBUL — Eastern Ghouta is still witnessing infighting among Syrian opposition forces, who have gradually come to dominate the area since Jan. 26, 2013.

The most important military achievement for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was taking over the Tamiko plant Oct. 19, 2013, in Eastern Ghouta. It was previously used as a military barrack by the Syrian regime forces. Essentially, the FSA has reached the Jermana region, the gate to Damascus, which allows it to cut the road to the international airport and impose more pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime.

But the recent opposition infighting that flared up on April 28 posed a great danger to the fate of Ghouta. The regime’s supply routes pass through the Ghouta region, which surrounds Damascus, so controlling Ghouta is a prelude to controlling Damascus.

The clashes began when Faylaq al-Rahman, supported by Jaish al-Fustat (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Brigade of the Nation's Dawn) attacked the headquarters of Jaish al-Islam in Eastern Ghouta. Faylaq al-Rahman has accused Jaish al-Islam of attempting to assassinate Khalid Tafour, the head judge of Ghouta.

Jaish al-Islam denied the accusation and replied by issuing a statement calling Faylaq al-Rahman to stop the clashes, blaming the group for the infighting in Ghouta and calling it to resolve this feud through dialogue.

Jaish al-Islam spokesman Capt. Islam Alloush told Al-Monitor from Istanbul on May 22, “We do not know the reasons behind this attack. They are invoking mere ordinary disputes between the military formations that are not considered an excuse to launch a military campaign to eliminate Jaish al-Islam, arrest hundreds of members and kill our finest fighters. As for the standing truce, we hope it will be permanent and the situation is restored to what it was. This is why we do not resort to solutions beyond the point of no return, such as military solutions. We are still looking for a political solution that gives back to each party its due rights.”

On April 28, Faylaq al-Rahman attacked Jaish al-Islam headquarters and its military leaders' homes located in towns inside Eastern Ghouta, which led to clashes between the two sides, causing many deaths and injuries.

The fighting between the two factions, which involved different types of medium- and short-range weapons, claimed the lives of nearly 300 civilians and armed men in Eastern Ghouta, according to activists from the region.

The Syrian regime and its allies exploited the battles between the opposition factions in Ghouta and tried to advance in the southern sector of Eastern Ghouta. The regime established full control over this sector; Jaish al-Islam members withdrew from their defense posts there.

An opposition source from Eastern Ghouta told Al-Monitor via Skype on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, “At the beginning of the confrontations in Ghouta, Jabhat al-Nusra and Faylaq al-Rahman laid a siege on al-Marej region in Eastern Ghouta, to put pressure on Jaish al-Islam, the main force in this region. The blockade cut out the supply of fighters to Jaish al-Islam, and most of the battlefront leaders were arrested there, most notably Abu Abdullah, a deputy chief of staff of Jaish al-Islam, and the commander of al-Marej front against regime forces. This placed the southern sector under the authority of Faylaq al-Rahman and [Jabhat] al-Nusra, which dispatched large troops and deployed them in Ghouta at the checkpoints and bunkers, cutting across Ghouta and surrounding areas of Jaish al-Islam. This undermined the opposition’s strength there.”

The conflict subsequently peaked, and an intervention between Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam seemed necessary. Several reconciliation initiatives were put forward, mainly the 10-item initiative proposed by a faction of the FSA. This initiative provided for the formation of a judicial and security committee to issue binding recommendations, impose a cease-fire, end hostilities and open roads between the regions controlled by Faylaq al-Rahman and those controlled by Jaish al-Islam to all opposition parties and for the opposition to return to the battlefronts against the regime that they had left as a result of the infighting.

Qatar submitted another initiative on May 1, known as the Doha Initiative, which was praised by the fighting parties. Meetings were held in Doha under the auspices of the General Coordinator of the Supreme Commission for Negotiations Riyad Hijab, and a reconciliation agreement was reached. According to this agreement, the parties should release detainees, implement the cease-fire, refrain from using of arms to resolve problems, reopen roads and return the civil institutions operating in the Ghouta region, such as the Free Syrian Police, to their rightful owners.

On the position of Faylaq al-Rahman, Wael Alwan, the group's spokesman, told Al-Monitor in Istanbul on May 26, a few days after the signing of the reconciliation agreement, “Given the expanding size of the factions in Ghouta, it was necessary to find a safety valve to overcome the problems and conflicts. The judicial body assumed the role of mediator and solved numerous problems, but the series of problems and takeovers of headquarters triggered an intensified use of force and bullets.”

He added, “The two sides regretted the bloodshed. They resorted to the media and exploited the Sharia for inciting strife. This is why one of the main conditions of the agreement was to stop all sorts of provocation. We accepted the initiatives since we want a peaceful solution. Civilians played a major role, in addition to the role of the military factions, Riyad Hijab and Qatar. We all hope the reconciliation will persist and ranks will be united to direct arms in the right direction.”

Civil society played a critical role in the appeasement and reconciliation between the two factions. Protesters took to the streets to demand a stop to the fighting and they worked to remove the sand mounds between neighborhoods.

Suleiman al-Naser, one of the protesters in Daraya, told Al-Monitor over Skype on May 26, “When the two main factions in Ghouta started fighting, we felt that this will affect everybody negatively and that we must stop the fighting. Our experience in the Syrian revolution taught us that civil society is stronger than weapons. It is the most influential among the rebels. For that reason, we immediately took to the streets to call for ending the fighting and preventing the division of Ghouta through mounds. We hope things will go back to the way they were and the factions will reunite.”

In the wake of the escalation, Ghouta faced a state of stagnation and entered a stage of calm and reassurance for civilians. However, this does not mean the problems ended. This is the beginning of the solution. The conditions of the agreement remain on paper, and if they aren’t implemented soon, the military escalation between both factions will resume and Ghouta will face internal strife between factions in addition to an external conflict with the regime army and the forces supporting it.

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