A few days ago, Jaish al-Islam announced that it had planned a major military operation into the heart of the capital Damascus. However, according to Jaish al-Islam’s indictments, the First Brigade of the Southern Front, which controls the Barzeh district of Damascus, obstructed the military operation. The two groups blamed one another, with Jaish al-Islam denouncing the First Brigade as traitors and agents of the Assad regime.
Observers say that the First Brigade’s stance stemmed from Barzeh residents’ wish to avoid becoming targets of retaliatory campaigns by the regime if Jaish al-Islam used Barzeh as point of entry into the capital Damascus.
A few days following the exchange of verbal assaults between the two groups, the Assad regime carried out a massive operation against Barzeh, targeting the district’s points of contact with Harasta, another clear attempt to disrupt contact between opposition strongholds in the area.
The regime persists in its efforts to isolate the areas under opposition control, gradually bringing them under siege by striking truces or taking military action. Meanwhile, among these groups which have all raised the banner of Islam in their resistance of regime oppression, disputes continue to create rifts, exposing their social bases to sieges and assaults.
How can we explain this surreal situation? Specialists and observers count a number of reasons for the conflict and division between the factions east of Damascus. The strength of regionalism is one of the first causes, as some of the factions include residents of certain towns who reject other factions comprised of residents from neighboring towns to take control of their neighborhood.
Against the backdrop of regionalism, other causes such as economic interests become more entrenched. In this respect, observers report a surreal situation in the Ghouta, manifested in the figure of Abu Ayman al-Manfoush, one of the major traders in Mesraba. Manfoush enjoys strong relations with Faylaq al-Rahman who favors them as partners in commercial dealings, selling goods to their fighters at lower rates, while the people of Douma under control of Jaish al-Islam receive the same goods from him at higher rates.
In the same context, Fatah al-Sham — previously the Nusra Front — appears in the picture under the name “Jaish al-Fustat.” The group controls several crucial underground tunnels which connect the Ghouta to al-Qaboun. From there, some high in demand goods pass into the area. Fatah al-Sham controls these tunnels and Jaish al-Islam accuses them of using them to pressure other Ghouta residents in areas under Jaish al-Islam control.
Doctrinal differences also contribute to sowing conflict among the factions east of Damascus. While Jaish al-Islam follows the Hanbali-Salafi school, Faylaq al-Rahman and other factions in the Ghouta follow the Shafi’i or Hanbali school according to the Sufi doctrine common among residents there. However, naturally, the fact that both Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham follow the Salafi line has not served as a strong common bond to bring them together. Jaish al-Islam follows al-Salafiya al-Ulmiyyawhereas Fatah al-Sham followed al-Salafiya al-Jihadiyya. This is where the role of the sharia judges becomes important. It is possible to view a number of videos on YouTube in which sharia judges from rival factions in the Ghouta appear, both doubting the sincerity and legitimacy of each other in terms of doctrine and practice.
In the meantime, the regime continues its efforts to extend control over the entire Damascus area and to eliminate the opposition strongholds one after another. The factions in the east of Damascus are unable to neutralize their internal conflicts in the interest of defending their strongholds and their social bases who will soon have to face the plight of forced displacement.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.