‘A stab in the back': New wave of rebel infighting in East Ghouta amidst siege, bombardment

AMMAN: Rival rebel factions in the besieged East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus clashed for a fourth straight day on Monday despite repeated protests by locals against the infighting, sources on the ground tell Syria Direct.

Over the past four days, “120 people have been killed as a result of the infighting, including 30 civilians," a member of the Civil Defense in East Ghouta told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. "The rest are fighters from the warring parties.”

Jaish al-Islam—a faction that largely dominates rebel-held East Ghouta politically and militarily—wrested control of agricultural land, roads and military headquarters belonging to rival group Failaq a-Rahman on Monday before launching a ground offensive on the nearby town of Zamalka, local activists told Syria Direct on Monday.

Monday’s attacks come amidst a wave of bloody rebel infighting that erupted this past Friday between Jaish al-Islam on one side and Failaq a-Rahman and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), an Islamist coalition which includes Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, on the other. 

Clashes began when Jaish al-Islam “attacked headquarters and areas belonging to Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and Failaq a-Rahman,” HTS’s Ebaa News Agency reported that day on Telegram.

However, Jaish al-Islam claimed that the attack was a response to “repeated transgressions” by Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham in a statement circulated online Friday.

 East Ghouta residents protest rebel infighting on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

“[HTS] is cutting roads, clearly obstructing the mujahedeen [Jaish al-Islam fighters] and humiliating them at their checkpoints as they go to perform their important duties in repelling the attacks of Assad’s gangs,” the statement added.

HTS accused Jaish al-Islam later Friday of executing a number of its members they had arrested the day before in the al-Ashaari region of East Ghouta, the Ebaa News Agency reported on Telegram.

The outbreak of infighting on Friday comes exactly one year since the last round of intra-rebel clashes in the East Ghouta suburbs. Two weeks of infighting in April and May 2016 weakened rebel defenses and culminated in the loss of large swathes of agricultural area to regime forces, Syria Direct reported at the time.

‘A stab in the back’

An estimated 3,000 residents protested infighting between rebel factions in Arbin, a town near the western border of East Ghouta, on Sunday. Demonstrators marched from the nearby towns of Zamalka and Hamouriyah.  

“Why don’t they think about what this infighting does to us?” Abu Muath, a 38-year-old Hamouriyah resident who protested, told Syria Direct on Monday.   

“If this infighting continues,” he added, “our fate will be death or forced displacement.”

As protestors marched through one of Arbin’s main streets on Sunday, fighters from Jaish al-Islam fired live rounds at the demonstrators, citizen journalist Osama al-Masri told Syria Direct. “A child was killed and 14 others were injured.”

Jaish al-Islam released a statement of apology the same day through Twitter, claiming the fighter who opened fire was not acting on “any order issued by the army’s leadership.”

“We have transferred the person who committed this heinous act to the courts in order to receive his punishment,” the statement continued, “and we pledge to follow up on the matter by providing all necessary medical services to those injured.”   

Several local pro-opposition media outlets posted videos showing a line of Jaish al-Islam fighters standing in front of demonstrators.

In the videos, shots ring out, and protestors quickly hurry into the alleyways branching off the main street, some carrying injured residents in their arms. Protestors then begin to chant “shabiha,” a term used for pro-Assad paramilitary forces, at the rebel fighters. It is a scene reminiscent of early anti-government protests in 2011.

“It’s enough that the regime is bombings us, that we are starting to feel the effect of the siege” said Abu Muath. “Now, we’re fighting each other.”

Abu Muath is one of three East Ghouta residents who told Syria Direct on Monday that the latest round of infighting, as civilians suffer from an intensified regime siege, has left them feeling betrayed.

 “Jaish al-Islam fires on protesters,” reads a protester's sign on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center.

This past February, Syrian regime forces encircled the east Damascus neighborhoods of al-Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh, a small opposition enclave north of the East Ghouta and an entry point for goods to be smuggled in the rebel-held suburbs through a network of tunnels.

Then, on March 21, government forces closed the al-Wafideen checkpoint, a crossing which allowed food and supplies into encircled East Ghouta, Syria Direct reported, solidifying the regime’s siege of around a dozen towns and villages east of the capital.  

Now, Dr. Ahmed al-Baqai, the director of a medical center in Kafr Batna, told Syria Direct on Monday that he is rapidly going through his stockpiled medical supplies in order to treat residents injured by the infighting.

“We received more than 20 injured residents at the center since Friday, most of them civilians,” he said.

“The infighting is a stab in the back of the revolution.”  

As rival factions clashed on Monday, regime forces reportedly continued their bombardment of rebel-held towns in the besieged enclave.  

Regime and Russian airstrikes in the neighboring towns of Saqba and Hamouriyah reportedly killed seven civilians, the Syrian Civil Defense reported on Monday. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the provenance of the strikes.

Local opposition media outlets also reported airstrikes in the towns of Kafr Batna and Arbin the same day.

As rival factions continued to clash on Monday, pro-government forces continued their offensive just north of the East Ghouta suburbs in the eastern Damascus district of Qaboun.

“The Syrian army achieved significant progress on the Qaboun front,” pro-regime daily al-Watan reported on Monday, adding that regime forces are “only 500 meters” away from completely isolated Qaboun from the adjacent Tishreen district.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.

Mohammad Ali

Originally from Latakia, Mohammad moved to Jordan in 2012. He completed a BA in Business Management in 2012. He previously volunteered with non-profit organizations in Jordan.