MADRID, Spain – What is the importance of East Ghouta?
In the antiquity Damascus was founded on an oasis in the middle of the desert, this arose after being watered down by the river Barada that descend from the Western Qalamoun mountains. The inhabitants of the ancient city irrigated the desert land creating canals so that the cultivable and green zone expanded east, south and southwest. The gardens of Damascus as it is commonly known to this area was always an agricultural and rural region, and its population more conservative, in contrast to the citizens of the most cosmopolitan capital.
The region is an important producer of fruits and vegetables that feeds the country. However, in the last decades the expansion of the city was eating ground to the fields of culture that were partially replaced by industrial belts and urban centers converted into suburbs of the capital. Controlling the area means significantly reducing the supply of the Damascene markets, which leads to an increase in prices that directly affects the consumer, causing greater disenchantment with the country’s elites. Another factor is the reduction of control over industrial land that has centered on the last 7 years almost exclusively on military production.
But undoubtedly what makes it a highly strategic enclave is its situation around Damascus. The Capital behind the mountainous barrier of the Western Qalamoun has access cut off to the rest of the national territory if it does not control East and West Ghouta.
To this day, the Army has managed to recover all of the rebel enclaves in Western Ghouta, however the Islamist-based groups still maintain more than 60% of East Ghouta. To get an idea of its importance, the district of Jobar, for example, is only 12 km from the Presidential Palace and Jisreen 22 km from the Damascus International Airport. That is why the rebel groups maintain their expectations in overthrowing the Syrian Government, and this can not declare their victory and push them to a national reconciliation without clearing the pressure on the capital.
Why have the rebels in East Ghouta resisted?
There are the keys in this aspect: The agglutinating figure of Zahran Alloush (Jaysh al-Islam) and the symbiosis between the military deserters of Faylaq al-Rahman and the urban area of East Ghouta.
As we have pointed out, Ghouta is represented by a conservative society, made up of peasants from the countryside and workers from the factories of the suburbs. After the crisis that emerged in 2000, a new social stratum was attached to this population, that of the displaced from areas suffering from economic emergency and droughts, who suffered hardships because they could not find accommodation in the capital. It served as a breeding ground for the religious and Salafist ideas that were being implanted in Syria.
When the riots broke out in 2011, they soon went viral in the Damascus belt, despite the rebel brigades that emerged were few and without cohesion. And it was not until the end of that year that real battalions began to be organized after the Amnesty of Islamists decreed by Assad trying to reduce the pressure of the protests.
Among those released was Zahran Alloush, son of a local salafist from Douma and a prominent Qur’anic scholar with strong ties to members of Saudi intelligence. Zahran in 1990 was sent to Saudi Arabia to study Islamic jurisprudence at the Islamic University of Mecca. There he made direct contact with the Wahhabi doctrine studying the texts of the ultraconservatives Ibn Baz and Ibn Othaymeen, back in Syria in the mid-nineties, he began to create a clandestine Salafist network that distributed Saudi religious texts, while accumulating and trafficking weapons to the Iraqi insurgents after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In 2009, the United States pressured Bashar al-Assad to cut the jihadist flow from Syria to Iraq, causing the Syrian president to start arresting clerics and Islamist leaders around Syrian territory, one of the detainees is Zahran who would spend 2 years in the prison of Sednaya before becoming the leader of Ghouta.
Once freed, Zahran soon joined a brigade associated with the Free Syrian Army, but it only took him a few months to create his own militia, the Company of Islam, formed by former comrades of the clandestine organization that he led in 2009, old salafist veterans of the Iraqi insurgency and students of his father.
The ties of his father, the preacher of the Tawid mosque in Douma, with members of the intelligence of Saudi Arabia, served the group as a source of funding, since the Arab Petromonarchy was at that time eager to form groups that overthrew Bashar al- Assad and the Baath party.
Soon the Company grew, until becoming first a Brigade and then an Army. Popularity increased rapidly for two reasons: Funding from Syrian and Saudi Salafists in Arabia and its reputation for religious purity embodied primarily in its leader, who possessed an eloquent oratory that he knew how to easily attract those fed up with the government, promising a Islamic Caliphate without corruption in Damascus.
The young rebel managed to gather around most rebel factions, either because of his charisma, his external support and also because of his ability to defeat his internal rivals militarily. While he lived, Ghouta had a leader above the others and a unified military council that reduced the factional wars considerably, the main reason for the defeat of the rebels in the rest of Syria.
The other cause that has led the rebels to avoid defeat in Ghouta has been the capacity of the deserters of the Syrian army who gathered around the Faylaq al-Rahman militia, who knew how to take advantage of the particularities of the suburbs of Damascus in Ghouta creating trenches and tunnels as if it were an open field. This symbiosis helped them to have an army of local fighters who knew the streets of the suburbs like the backs of their hands. Among these militiamen, they were able to enlist important smugglers in the area who allowed them to control the clandestine supply routes, so they met their needs and that of the citizens, who responded by joining their ranks.
What militias are present in East Ghouta?
In 2013 the Syrian Army managed to completely besiege East Ghouta by cutting off the supply line that arrived from Turkey. This led the groups to supply through clandestine tunnels and the Checkpoint of Wafideen controlled by Jaysh al-Islam, this feature served to exercise dominion over the other militias created a Unified Military Command, thanks to the isolation of the rest of the country that avoided the influence of the intrarebeld conflicts of the rest of Syria. With the death of Zahran Alloush in 2015 after a government bombing, this union collapsed, and the various groups began a fratricidal war within the siege.
Nowadays these are the different groups that coexist badly there:
The Army of Islam is a local Salafist group formed initially by the Alloush family and its followers and regular students that has settled in the eastern half of Ghouta and whose headquarters are in the city of Douma. Both Zahran and his father were important Sunni preachers trained in Saudi Arabia and influenced by Saudi Wahhabism, whose goal was to establish themselves in Syria. The militia was able to establish itself and grow thanks to the significant donations from Syrian and Saudi Salafists based in Saudi Arabia who decided to get involved because of the personal relationships with the Alloush family. Later the support of Kuwait was key, in this emirate of the Gulf, important personalities appeared on television in the famous telethons collecting money that would later send to Jaysh al-Islam. Saudi Arabia was the one who translated these important donations into weapons and salaries for the fighters of the group. Armament that came from the Libyan Islamists and entered with the collaboration of Turkey and Qatar, and was introduced in Ghouta by the passage of Otaybah until 2013.
Ideologically, the group wanted to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Damascus, based on Islamic law (Sharia). Its supporters totally despise democracy as they consider it inferior to the Qur’an, they have frequently attacked other secular militias and defenders of democracy and human rights, a similar view they have of communism that they qualify as a nest of apostates. According to his ideologist Zahran Alloush, the real Islam is that of the Sunnis, so the struggle in Syria is not for democracy but to end the so-called Nusayri regime, a contemptuous term with which the Syrian Sunnis refer to Alawitas since they consider them a heretical doctrine for mixing Islam with Christianity and Gnosticism. In that aspect they have not hesitated to cage captured Alawites, using them as human shields.
To maintain control of Ghouta, Zahran created a network of informants on the ground, with which he managed to know what the rival militias, NGOs and anyone within his ‘kingdom’ did. He paid the neighbors in exchange for information. In short he created a police regime. The opponents of Jaysh al-Islam fallen into disgrace went to the Prison of Repentance in Douma, where they are tortured and killed by order of the Islamic Courts.
The militia was clearly the most powerful in East Ghouta, – the most optimistic reports assigned to it by nearly 10,000 fighters – the checkpoint control of the million (Wafideen) on which they collected 30% of the price of the goods, as well as several tunnels of contraband allowed him to lead and lead the rebels. In this regard, they were able to unite the different Islamic courts so that they succeeded in merging various minor militias. Those who refused suffered the wrath of Zahran Alloush who did not hesitate to destroy them as in the case of Jaysh al-Umma and the Islamic State in Ghouta. With al Qaeda they have maintained a love hate relationship, although they have participated in practically all the battles as allies, the refusal of the jihadists to unite their sharia court with that of Jaysh al-Islam, generated mistrust between both groups and led to in a brutal war after the death of Zahran Alloush in 2015 that weakened both formations. With his death, the old enemies have tried to collect their debts and to this day with the clashes continuing despite the government is recovering all the siege.
It is the second militia in importance in East Ghouta – according to its own communiques, it has about 8,000 combatants – and is located in the southwestern half of the fence, specifically in the urban areas of Jobar, Ayn Terma, Zamalka and Irbin. It was founded by the deserter Captain of the Syrian Army Abdul Nasr Shamir after the union of two small brigades (Brigada al-Bara and Abu Musa al-Shari Brigade). From the beginning they joined with the Free Syrian Army despite the fact that their agenda is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has allowed them to enjoy the economic and military support of Qatar that has provided them with US-made anti-tank missiles.
From the earliest times of the war they forged alliances with local smugglers that allowed them to create a network of tunnels through which they could create an alternative economy that generated enough strength to face the leadership of Zahran Alloush. Each militia defeated by Jaysh al-Islam went to Faylaq al-Rahman for protection in exchange for loyalty. First it happened with Jaysh al-Umma and later it was followed by the Sufi Islamists of AJNAD al-Sham who pronounced even more the Islamist character of the militia, imprinting in it the particularities of Sufism.
On the battlefield they have forged an extensive alliance with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (al Qaeda) to confront both the Syrian Army and the frequent wars against Jaysh al-Islam. A relationship that has always worked, except in a disagreement between Ahrar al-Sham and HTS, in which they positioned themselves alongside the former. What has not prevented both groups have made a joint defense in the Front of Jobar, Ayn Terma and Irbin.
The leaders of the militia, mostly army deserters, have transferred the techniques of trenches and tunnels to the urban area, which has transformed the Ayn Terma-Jobar-Zamalka axis into an impregnable fortress and a human meat mincer.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham
Much has already been written about the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, so it is not necessary to deepen its ideology. However it is interesting to know their particularities in Ghouta, where despite their low number – between 600 and 1000 fighters – they have played a prominent role, especially on the western front of the enclave, where they occupy a diagonal of the territory that goes from Irbin to Beit Nayem crossing through Saqba, Aftris, Qubayat and Hazeh. As in Jobar.
Despite being a minority, they have always managed to stay out of the Unified Military Command of Ghouta and the decisions of Jaysh al-Islam, with whom they have collaborated frequently but have dared to challenge on several occasions. In 2015, Jaysh al-Islam’s decision to participate in the Peace Talks in Riyad while denying the invitation to Jabhat al-Nusra (former name of HTS) caused blistering in the group that decided to create the operating room Jaysh al-Fustat in association with the local jihadists of Fajr al-Umma based in Harasta. In a movement that served as a prelude to the war that would originate against Jaysh al-Islam.
In this way HTS secured part of the benefits of the contraband of the Harasta tunnels controlled by Fajr al-Umma and in turn added more fighters to compensate the few troops against Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman.
The battle in the neighboring siege of Qaboun / Barzeh through which the military inputs entered through the tunnels forged an important alliance between HTS and Faylaq al-Rahman that found in each other the opportunity to subdue Jaysh al-Islam and end with the hegemony of this militia in the siege.
Although Ahrar al-Sham is one of the most numerous groups in Syria, in Ghouta they have not managed to materialize, partly because their Salafi ideology is similar to that of Jaysh al-Islam who has taken a predominant role in the capital Damascus. Despite that handicap that they have maintained since the Islamic Front in which the alliance co-led with Zahran Alloush. Their presence is limited to small centers in Harasta, Jobar, Hazrama, Beit Naym and Madyara, always as a secondary support force. And with a militancy less than 500 troops.
This weakness has forced him to play with the alliances according to the conditions of the moment. In the beginnings of the war they were firm allies of Jaysh al-Islam, with the fall in disfavor of the Islamic Front they approached Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda) and in these final measures maintain greater affinity with Fajr al-Umma and Faylaq -Rahman with those who tried to take the Armored Vehicle Base in Harasta.
The Fajr al-Umma Brigade is present only in the town of Harasta and consists of about 400 fighters seeking the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Syria. The organization evolved towards radicalization as did its leader Abu Khaled al-Zahteh, a businessman linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The participation in the war began as part of a small brigade linked to the Free Syrian Army, as this group lost support in favor of the Islamists, Abu Khaled and his people swore allegiance to the Sufis of AJNAD al-Sham. They were a rising value in Syria. Nevertheless the economic quota that received was little compared with the risk that they played under this formation, so with the help of Jaysh al-Islam they expelled the sufíes and Fajr al-Umma took the total control on Harasta and its tunnels towards Qaboun. From that position he managed to expand the power of his militia by extorting other armed groups that needed their merchandise to keep up with the war. This growth significantly alerted Alloush that created land barriers on Harasta and positioned its tanks pointing towards them.
The menacing stance of Jaysh al-Islam pushed Fajr into an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, at the same time that Abu Khaled embraced the Wahhabi doctrine. The fighting took place and both groups were accused of storing all the food that entered Ghouta while the people went hungry. In the last year, the small armed conflict between Faylaq al-Rahman and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham prompted Fajr al-Umma to move away from the orbit of al-Qaeda and search for Ahrar al-Sham’s new trench partner, germinating this friendship in the battle for Harasta Armored Vehicle Base, the only place in the district over which Abu Khaled does not rule.
The al-Majd Brigades are probably the least radical faction of those operating in East Ghouta. Located only in Hamouriyah and with an approximate number of 250 combatants, it was born in 2016 after separating from Faylaq al-Rahman due to disagreements over its Islamist drift and the alliance with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. They remain affiliated to the Free Syrian Army and in their founding message they demanded the establishment of a democratic Syria, governed by Islamic law but in which all religious denominations have a place.
In the recent conflict between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman against Jayshal-Islam they resolved to take sides with the latter claiming the unity of all factions and the expulsion of al Qaeda from the siege.
The pressure on the fence
In April 2013, the Syrian Army won the Battle of Otaybah, at that time there was something more than a locality at stake. It was the last supply route for the various rebel militias that connected from East Ghouta to Jordan and Turkey.
That defeat surrounded the rebels and was a turning point in the Battle for Damascus. In reality the Syrian Government scored a victory that allowed it to wait for events to unfold. A new war began but for the control of the economy of the enclave that granted its control and the possibility of exercising a unique strategy against the Syrian Army.
The Syrian Government skillfully cut off the entry of any kind of merchandise to Ghouta, squeezed, but did not choke. When the humanitarian crisis worsened within the fence, it allowed the entry of aid from the Red Crescent and loosen the rigidity of controls. Thus, a black market for subsistence similar to that of Gaza was created inside Ghouta. Starting in 2014, the Army of Islam will succeed in expelling Jaysh al-Umma from the lucrative smuggling business at the one million Checkpoint in Wafideen. Despite the initial reaction of the government to close it completely, they finally realize that with that market they can further divide the enclave, so they decide to accept the presence of Jaysh al-Islam that begins to charge 30% the input of civil inputs , causing a rise in prices, and economic dominance over the other militias.
People begin to perceive Jaysh al-Islam as corrupt as the Syrian government, the unholy and religious image cracks. On the other hand, AJNAD al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and other militias continue to control the tunnels towards Qaboun where weapons and ammunition enter. The tunnels came to work 24 hours a day for 3 shifts. In this way they managed to flood the product market and lower prices which made Jaysh al-Islam lose competitiveness.
Soon the fighting broke out, one by one the rebel militias were succumbing to the military might of Zahran Alloush; Jaysh al-Umma, Faylaq Omar, Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham, AJNAD al-Sham, only Faylaq al-Rahman and Jabhat al-Nusra managed to challenge his leadership. The rebels themselves were weakening in internal struggles for the control of the enclosed territory and its economy, while the Syrian Army waited and only hit when the internal wars spurred the rebel side. In all of them it was clear that the people went hungry while the armed groups were dedicated to storing food.
With the fall of Qaboun and Barzeh the tunnels have been neutralized, the entry of merchandise is simplified only to the Checkpoint of Wafideen still controlled by Jaysh al-Islam, and with the same strategy the government tightens and loosens so that the other rebel groups are dispute your control. Finally the internal struggles have been the reason why the Syrian Government has been able to recover the vast majority of the city and the province of Damascus.
The last Battle of East Ghouta
The day of the final battle is approaching in Ghouta East. Bashar al-Assad orders the siege to be effective and decrees a total blockade of food, medicines and other civilian supplies. The objective is for the rebels to consume their reserves, while the unsustainable situation of the population reduces support for the armed groups. Days later the daily and night bombardments of all the siege localities prior to the ground assault begin.
Unlike Aleppo rebels where the ground is rocky, militants in Damascus take advantage of its clay soil to create an extensive network of trenches, tunnels, pits and defensive ditches that surround the enclave. Because of the size of such pharaonic work, it is believed that these groups have used the hungry population as cheap labor, working in the excavations in exchange for food. Jaysh al-Islam decided to build it mainly in the east of the enclave because of its difficult defense as it is an open field, unlike the urban defensive barrier that forms the west of East Ghouta. At the beginning of the battle proudly communicated on his Twitter “The death line will be impassable, the bands of the regime will succumb in it.”
According to pro-rebel figures in the siege, there are between 15,000-20,000 combatants willing to be martyred for “protecting their land and 400,000 civilians”, a figure that at least as far as civilians are concerned, seems exaggerated since it is close to the population registered in 2011 prior to the start of the protests.
On the other side of the trench, the Syrian Army, aware of the need to overcome the number 3/1 of the defenders, have emptied all the fronts of the country and displaced their most competent units to prepare the attack, at 104º, 105º and 106th Brigades of the Republican Guard have joined the Tiger Forces, the 4th and 9th Armored Division, the 7th and 10th Mechanized Division, the 1st and 2nd Corps, the Special Forces of the 14th Division, the Tribal Forces, Liwa al-Quds and a conglomerate of National Defense Forces that accumulate a total amount close to 45,000 combatants.
If the Syrian Army manages to defeat the rebels in Damascus, the war will be sentenced. With the capital cleared thousands of soldiers destined in that siege will be liberated, which will be deployed in other fronts creating new numerical superiorities. Bashar al-Assad will have greater room for maneuver in negotiations with the opposition to create a road map towards national reconciliation. If, on the other hand, the offensive gets stuck, it is possible that the rebels will gain time and the International Community will take an ace out of its sleeve to enforce the war in Syria. Regardless of the final outcome, the Battle for Damascus has already claimed the lives of more than 10,000 fighters and several thousand civilians. Luckily it seems that it is coming to an end.
Translated from Descifrando la Guerra.