Former Syrian Rebel Group Allies with Assad to Fight Islamists near Damascus

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Published Monday, February 9, 2015

Former rebel militiamen who have switched sides and joined Syria’s pro-government forces are engaged in a fierce battle against Islamist insurgents near Damascus, sources said on Sunday.

The fighting came as reports state Kurdish forces had recaptured more than 100 villages from Islamists near the symbolic Syrian town of Kobane.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, pro-regime Jaysh al-Wafaa launched its "fiercest battle yet" on Saturday night against Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) fighters near the rebel bastion of Douma, east of the capital.

"The fighting is ongoing now," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP on Sunday.

Jaysh al-Wafaa, whose name in Arabic translates as "The Loyalty' Army," was formed some three months ago, more than a year into a suffocating regime siege of the Eastern Ghouta area, which includes Douma.

The militia's task is to confront Army of Islam, the best-armed opposition group in the Damascus area, according to the Observatory and activists in Douma.

President Bashar al-Assad's government "is financing and arming Jaysh al-Wafaa", Abdel Rahman said.

"Among its ranks are armed men who, after more than a year under siege, handed themselves in to the regime," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"Because of the siege, some people prefer to evacuate their children and have a chance at survival, rather than stay put and die either from hunger or because of the bombings."

He said Jaysh al-Wafaa "provides a way for fighters to be free both from the regime siege, and from (Army of Islam chief) Zahran Alloush," who is notorious for his abuses.

Douma, which emerged early in Syria's conflict as an important rebel bastion, is now under Army of Islam's control.

Tens of thousands trapped in the siege suffer from food and medical shortages, as well as deadly army bombardment.

A source close to the Syrian government and an Army of Islam spokesman both confirmed to AFP that a battle was taking place.

"Jaysh al-Wafaa was set up three months ago by people from Douma and former rebels," the pro-government source said.

"Yesterday (Saturday) they attacked Jaysh al-Islam and killed 12 of its fighters."

A spokesman for the Islamist group said rebels also killed an unknown number of the enemy.

The Observatory was not in a position to confirm tolls, but said Assad loyalists were backed by fighters from the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah on the ground, as well as by regime artillery.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators. Islamists have since poured into the country from all over the world, seeking to establish an “Islamic caliphate.”

A third of villages near Kobane recaptured

Syrian Kurdish forces have recaptured more than a third of the villages around Kobane from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria group since routing the jihadists from the town a fortnight ago, the Observatory said Sunday.

"The (Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG) have recaptured 128 villages out of some 350 in the past two weeks," Abdel Rahman said.

The YPG recaptured Kobane on the border with Turkey from ISIS jihadists on January 26, after four months of fierce fighting backed by Syrian rebels and US-led coalition airstrikes.

"The IS withdrew from villages east and south of Kobane mostly without resistance, but fought hard to try to keep control of villages to the west," Abdel Rahman said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.

"That's because it wants to try to protect areas under its control in Aleppo province. But the Kurds are steadily advancing," he told AFP.

The US-led coalition has been carrying out strikes against ISIS in Syria since September.

In recent days, it has continued to pound ISIS positions around Kobane, while YPG troops backed by Syrian rebels press the fight on the ground.

Washington has rallied more than 60 countries in the fight against ISIS, and while US Secretary of State John Kerry told a global security conference it would be a long battle, he claimed there were signs the strategy was working.

Since August there have been 2,000 airstrikes by the coalition, Kerry told the Munich Security Conference, saying it had helped to retake some 700 square kilometers in territory, or "one-fifth of the area they had in their control."

The US secretary of state did not specify whether the regained territory was in Iraq or Syria, but he added the coalition had "deprived the militants of the use of 200 oil and gas facilities ... disrupted their command structure.... squeezed its finance and dispersed its personnel."

Critics of the US-led coalition – including Assad – have said that the airstrikes haven’t stopped ISIS advances in certain areas, and that the group has held its ground in some areas that have been under intense fire from coalition airstrikes.

They also point to the number of weapons, initially supplied by the US and its allies to rebel groups in Syria, which have ended in the hands of Islamists.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)


"Syria's conflict began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolt demanding democratic change, but evolved into a brutal war after government forces violently repressed demonstrators" - NO, islamists with Gulf (CIA) backing had been killing Syrian soldiers and police from the beginning

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