Syria’s Eastern Ghouta: A Chaotic Conflict of Brigades
By: Laith al-Khatib
Published Friday, December 20, 2013
The situation in eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, has dramatically changed since the beginning of the crisis over two years ago. What began as a few peaceful protests eventually grew to include a local armed presence, then brigades encompassing varied factions and fronts.
Eastern Ghouta has historically been a battleground for Damascus’ wars, most recently in the 1930s when Syrian nationalists chose it as a base to attack French troops. This region in rural Damascus is renowned as a sphere for patriotic armed struggles, a place where the French mandate received severe blows decades ago.
However, the war today is much more complicated, as dozens of armed groups have formed and thousands of Syrian and foreign fighters engage in a large regional war. Some of the battles are fought against the state and its regular army, others are fought among the opposition factions themselves.
Eastern Ghouta residents primarily work in agriculture and furniture making. As you travel deeper into the region, you notice that residents are mostly peasants living the simple life.
A few years before the crisis, Ghouta residents received two severe blows. Amid the Turkish-Syrian rapprochement, Turkish goods were allowed to penetrate Syrian markets, particularly home furniture, closing thousands of Ghouta’s workshops.
The second blow was the government’s decision to acquire agricultural lands, mainly in the town of Douma, disturbing decades of affinity between Ghouta and the authority, which was built on the principles of agricultural reform and protection of national industry.
The uprising quickly reached Ghouta, and a big protest erupted in Douma on 25 March 2011, followed by larger protests in many Ghouta towns including Harasta, Zamalka, Jobar, Arbin, Ayn Terma, and Kfarbatna.
Free Syrian Army Obtains Arms
Peaceful protests soon turned into armed clashes with security forces. It all started in September 2011 when a man named Abdel-Ghafour Darwish formed the first armed brigade in Ghouta: the Abu Obeida al-Jarah Brigade, under the wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The brigade began to attack security headquarters before the intervention of the Syrian army, while other groups, such as the Abu Said Ataya group in Jobar, focused on “protecting protesters.”
S. Bilal, a Jobar resident, told Al-Akhbar, “Protecting protesters was more of a formal framework. In Jobar, for example, protests were used as bait to draw in shabiha [regime thugs] so that protesters’ protection committees could hunt them down.”
He mentioned an incident at Jobar’s Big Mosque, where people pretended to attend the funeral services of a fallen martyr. As usual, a bus with security men on board arrived to keep the funeral from turning into a protest, but they were ambushed by a protesters’ protection committee. A number of police officers were killed and many others injured. It was later revealed that the coffin was actually empty.
The Syrian army got involved, and bloody clashes erupted. S. Bilal said, “The FSA received severe blows, and the disparity in size, organization, and experience between both parties became evident. FSA men looked almost amateur compared with the regular army. They were mostly civilians, former protesters only good at throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.”
This called for the “establishment of military and local councils focusing on obtaining financial support and encouraging defections from the army.” Indeed, these actions were fruitful and the FSA started advancing in rural Damascus. Hussam Salameh, a civil protester said, “The revolution lost most of its pioneer protesters, the original freedom advocates.”
“First, a number of Ghouta locals who were killed in the protests, including our organizers and leaders. We needed backup, and that is when the opportunists came in, following the money. Finally, the Islamists came along, and since day one they have pushed toward an armed conflict as a pretext to foreign military intervention,” Salameh explained.
He believes that Ghouta residents were marginalized and replaced by foreigners or Syrian adherents to the “Islamist” ideology. “All protesters I knew from the beginning of the events are now martyrs, prisoners, living abroad, or staying in their houses,” he said.
According to Abu Ahmad, a FSA fighter, opposition newcomers formed their own “brigades,” while “the FSA was fighting on the front.” These brigades imitated al-Nusra Front by “restricting themselves to limited operations that would bring them the largest amount of financial support.”
“For them, an operation is launching a RPG and taping it while shouting ‘God is great.’ Each video brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars from rich Gulf emirs and sheikhs,” he said.
He revealed that a commander in the Fatah al-Sham Brigade in Harasta, Abu Mouhanad, used to attack army posts without making advances. When the FSA offered to support him, he refused and threatened to kill anyone who approached his territory. It was later revealed that the man intentionally stalled because it brought him and his group more support.
With that support, Ghouta entered the era of the brigades, led by the Army of Islam. The list of brigades that dominate Ghouta is seemingly endless. In eastern Ghouta there is the Islam Brigade, later known as the Army of Islam. Jobar is dominated by Haron al-Rashid Battalion, affiliated with al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigade and the Sham al-Rassoul Brigade. Harasta has the Capital’s Armors, Fatah al-Sham, Um al-Qora, and Douma Martyrs Brigades.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has a limited presence in rural Damascus. Though ISIS never publicly announced a presence in eastern Ghouta, many incidents may be traced back to the faction, including the death of one of its leaders, Abu Suleiman al-Ansari, in eastern Ghouta, and the death of 10 Saudis belonging to ISIS.
Douma’s Army of Islam is the most prominent military formation in eastern Ghouta. Although its leader Zahran Alloush claims that 90 percent of its arms come from profits earned by vanquishing regular army troops, informed sources reveal that the Army of Islam has close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Alloush, 43, is the son of Salafi preacher Abdullah Alloush. He studied Sharia in Saudi Arabia and visited the country as recently as last Eid al-Adha. Observers say that the Army of Islam plays a vital role in eastern Ghouta, controlling all financial channels which give its military and media advantages.
F. Asaad, a FSA fighter from Assali, told Al-Akhbar, “Our support from the military council had stopped so we asked the Army of Islam for assistance. They took three weeks to reply. Finally, they asked us to attribute all our operations to the Army of Islam in Assali. We approved and we got the support.”
The Army of Islam also plays a crucial intelligence and logistic role. Familiar sources confirm that through its huge information database, it can control all operations in eastern Ghouta. “It has critical information about the armed opposition structure and has conducted detailed studies about its members, on top of its information about the state’s security bodies and the regular army,” said a source.
These capabilities may prove that the Army of Islam is backed by regional intelligence agencies. Observers also estimate that the Army of Islam is more of an operation center for the armed opposition rather than a simple military force on the ground. Today, eastern Ghouta has turned into a stronghold of the Army of Islam.
However, this army has yet to lift the siege imposed by the Syrian army on Ghouta. It has recently fought vicious battles alongside al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, and took over several towns only to have the army counterattack. Last week, the Army of Islam was accused of committing a massacre of civilians in Adra.
The current battles in Ghouta will determine the fate of the Army of Islam, and Ghouta will soon confront two choices: Either the Syrian army turns it into a defense line for Damascus, or Zahran Alloush and his men will turn it into a base for their operations targeting Damascus.
What Makes a Brigade a Brigade?
Some observers believe that names like “brigade” and “battalion,” liwaa and katiba in Arabic respectively, have religious and historical rather than military affiliations, since they correspond to military formations dating back to the first Arab Islamic state. For example, 10 militants can form an opposition battalion, while a battalion in a regular army, like the Syrian army, has about 500 individuals and its commander holds either a colonel rank or higher. while the highest rank in most opposition brigades is lieutenant.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.