Ghouta on edge over talk of reconciliation with regime

Tensions are high in eastern Ghouta as the Islamic State looks to make a comeback and some factions are looking to replicate Aleppo's cessation of fighting in the area.

al-monitor A Free Syrian Army fighter prepares to launch a locally made weapon toward forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad from the besieged town of Arbin in the eastern Ghouta area of Damascus, Jan. 18, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Yaseen Al-Bushy.

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syrian civil war, syria, jaysh al-islam, jabhat al-nusra, ghouta, damascus, cease-fire

Feb 2, 2015

The events in the eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, are further escalating after recent developments. Most important are talks about a reconciliation with the Syrian army and the fear of the Islamic State (IS) advancing towards the area.

The factions controlling Ghouta have been preoccupied with trying to thwart reconciliation, while working on containing cells that are suspected of having pledged allegiance to IS. Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra has shifted its battles against the moderate factions from the Idleb countryside to the countryside west of Aleppo, which has seen clashes between the organization and the western-backed Hazm Movement.

Two new developments are unfolding in eastern Ghouta. First, the concerns triggered by a public appearance of IS in Ghouta after a hiatus of several months. Second, there have been talks for the first time about a reconciliation with the government that would include Arbin, one of the cities in Ghouta.

The first development has come as a threat to some factions that are intimidated by the return of IS to the area, especially after the violent blows they had dealt to it by killing dozens of the organization’s leaders. Meanwhile, the second development has caused some mistrust between factions that started to exchange accusations of collaboration with the Syrian regime, which led to clashes between them.

Abu Haroun Jobar, the former leader of the al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades and current leader of Jund al-Asima Brigade, which is affiliated with the former, has been among those most affected by the Rahman Corps campaign against the cells accused of having pledged allegiance to IS.

The Rahman Corps raided Jobar’s headquarters in Arbin, which led to clashes between the two sides and the killing and wounding many people. The clashes ended with the arrest of Jobar and the surrender of his battalion.

The statement issued by the information office of the Rahman Corps confirmed the link between Jund al-Asima and IS, accusing Jobar of, “Pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and receiving funds from him, sheltering gang leaders in eastern Ghouta and providing assistance to the security cells that committed several crime.”

The statement also said that the Abu Zeid Horan group is also being tracked down in the town of Ain Tarma for the same reasons.

Some activists in Ghouta fear that the accusation of pledging allegiance to IS would turn into a mere pretext by strong factions to get rid of their opponents.

In this context, one of the activists said that Jobar is wanted by the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush. When he was still the commander of Al-Habib al-Mustafa brigade, Jobar decided to end an alliance with Alloush instead seeking to join the unified military command in which Alloush holds the position of commander general. Alloush saw this decision as disobedience, which led to the arrest of Jobar.

In parallel, over the past two days, Jan. 28-29, Arbin has witnessed clashes between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Umm al-Qura Brigade, as the latter insisted on carrying out negotiations with the Syrian army to reach an agreement on reconciliation in the city.

The letter, which was sent by the brigade leadership to the Syrian army asking for renewal of negotiations, raised the ire of Jabhat al-Nusra and prompted it to arrest Abu Naeem Yaacoub, the messenger.

Jabhat al-Nusra also surrounded the headquarters of the brigade in Arbin, which led to the outbreak of clashes between the two sides. As a result, Abu al-Barraa al-Doumani, a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, was killed and others were arrested. The group declared a state of alert in the region, while Umm al-Qura rushed to set up checkpoints and fortify its positions for any emergency.

Tension continues to prevail in the city, especially following threats by Jabhat al-Nusra to storm in to free its detainees and avenge the death of one of its members.

In the meantime, Jabhat al-Nusra has also been fighting another battle on a different front in Aleppo, against the Hazm Movement which is described as moderate by the West.

Groups of Jabhat al-Nusra surrounded the village of Sheikh Suleiman in the western countryside of Aleppo. The organization also raided the movement’s headquarters and weapons warehouses, while its other groups have been setting up checkpoints and deploying snipers on the roofs of the buildings near the Atarib-Sarmada road.

Jabhat al-Nusra said in a statement that the reason behind the attack was “the failure of negotiations to release two of our members that are being detained by the movement.” However, a source following up on the developments told As-Safir, “The attack comes within Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to control the region and to expand its influence, since now it has its eyes set on Aleppo countryside after it had managed to control the countryside of Idlib.”

However, it needed a reason to attack. “The direct cause of the attack on the headquarters of Sheikh Suleiman was that the piece of information Jabhat al-Nusra received saying that Ahmed Shama, one of the leaders of the Hazm Movement, had ordered the weapons to be transported from the warehouses to an unknown location. This caused the ire of Jabhat al-Nusra, as it considered these warehouses to be its own property and accused the movement of having seized them during the battles with Jamal Maarouf, before the signing of the agreement to neutralize Aleppo some time ago,” the source added.

While the clashes did not leave any dead or wounded, Jabhat al-Nusra captured 15 members of the Hazm movement, who are believed to have handed themselves over without resistance.

The Hazm movement issued a statement accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of exaggeration in religion and apostasy,” stressing that it would defend itself to the last drop of blood. The movement also called upon factions to implement the cease-fire agreement in Aleppo, given the dangerous situation in the governorate. The Hazm movement also threatened to “withdraw all our fighters from all fronts in Aleppo (against the Syrian army) to defend the movement’s headquarters against the treachery of any oppressor.”

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