Of all the areas under insurgent control in Syria, perhaps none is more important than the East Ghouta region. Situated just east of Damascus, this besieged enclave is among the most militarized rebel strongholds in the country. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government were to crumble, it is likely that rebels from the East Ghouta would be the first to breach the capital’s defenses.
Historically a lush belt of agricultural land, olive and orange groves, and quaint little villages, the Ghouta has been shaped by the explosive population growth of Damascus in recent decades, which has formed a suburban sprawl encompassing satellite towns around the capital. Many of these towns have preserved a distinct character. The city of Douma, for example, has remained a regional center of religious learning, noted for its conservatism; it is one of very few places in Syria where the austere Hanbali school of Sunni Islam is prevalent.
Since 2011, Douma has functioned as a revolutionary capital of sorts inside the East Ghouta enclave, which is home to thousands of rebel fighters. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been forced to devote enormous resources to the region and fighting has taken a heavy toll on both sides. Although many army soldiers have fallen on the frontlines around the enclave, it is undoubtedly the rebel towns of the East Ghouta that have suffered worse destruction through years of artillery and aerial bombardment as well as a string of nerve gas attacks in 2013.
Nevertheless, the East Ghouta rebels have managed to stave off government attacks for more than four years. It is a testimony not only to the strength of local anti-Assad sentiment, but also to the unique system of coordination and governance set up in this region under the auspices of one of Syria’s most powerful rebel factions.
The Role of the Islam Army
The most important rebel group in the East Ghouta is the Islam Army, or Jaish al-Islam in Arabic. Through a combination of shrewd tactics, pragmatic alliances, and the ruthless suppression of rivals, it has emerged since 2013 as the undisputed central pillar in the East Ghouta’s defenses.
Its founder and first leader, Zahran Alloush, was a longstanding salafi activist released from prison through an amnesty decree in June 2011. A shrewd politician and charismatic orator, Alloush was beloved by his men, but seen as a terrorist by the regime and as a controversial figure by other opposition supporters. Many secularists and democrats within the opposition viewed Alloush as a fundamentalist dictator-in-waiting, while some hardline Islamists saw him as either a power-hungry opportunist or a tool of the Saudi monarchy. Even his closest allies at times seemed nervous about his appetite for power.
However, even Alloush’s enemies accorded him begrudging respect for his dedication to the uprising against Assad rule, and for his organizational abilities. Under his control the Islam Army grew into a powerful and professional force, compared to more haphazardly organized factions in the north and south. He was, for better or worse, one of the rebellion’s rare state-builders and his great legacy was the relative stability that he managed to bring to the East Ghouta, even as it was involved in fighting on all fronts simultaneously.
The Unified Judiciary
On June 24, 2014, the main rebel factions of the East Ghouta announced their support for a joint civilian governance body known as the Unified Judiciary Council. This was quickly followed by the creation of a military counterpart, known as the Unified Military Command, which was led by Alloush.
Throughout the five-year war, Syria’s rebel movements have been dispiriting failures when it comes to governing. The Unified Judiciary Council is only a partial exception to this rule, but given the unusually harsh and difficult circumstances of the East Ghouta, it should probably be counted as one of the rebels’ rare successes—and that was to a large degree the Islam Army’s doing.
The Unified Judiciary Council was not controlled by the armed factions themselves, though they exercise influence over it. Instead, the factions collectively decided to cede control over legal affairs to a panel made up of respected scholars of Islamic law. This body presides over several courts with geographically distinct areas of jurisdiction: one in the city of Douma, in the northeast of the enclave, another in the al-Marj area in the south, and so on. The system also branches out into offices dealing with criminal law, civilian matters, and family-status issues, making for a rather extensive administrative apparatus.
The council’s first leader was Sheikh Abu Shujaa al-Azhari, whose real name was Ahmed Abdelaziz Uyyoun. He resigned soon after the creation of the Unified Judiciary Council in summer 2014, apparently upset by infringements on his authority. He was assassinated by unknown assailants a year later. Abu Shujaa’s successor, who ran the Unified Judicial Authority during what may have been its glory days in 2014—2015, was Sheikh Khaled Tafour. A cleric from Zahran Alloush’s hometown of Douma, he was in fact linked to a rival faction, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union. In August 2015, after repeated quarrels with the Islam Army, Tafour also decided to resign from the top position, although he remains part of the governing council. He was soon replaced by his former deputy, Sheikh Abu Abderrahman Zeinelabidine, while Abu Rateb Abu Diqqa, another colleague, was later appointed deputy president.
Apart from these three men—Council President Abu Abderrahman Zeinelabedine, Deputy President Abu Rateb Abu Diqqa, and Khaled Tafour—the council’s top leadership currently has four other members: Ali Dandal, who heads the al-Marj court; Abu Yaser, from Bzeineh, west of al-Marj; Abu Adnan, who runs the court in the Erbeen neighborhood of Damascus; and Abu Mohammed, who runs the court in Hammouriyeh, southeast of Erbeen.
Widely Accepted, Harshly Enforced
When the Unified Judicial Council was created in its current form in summer 2014, it enjoyed the backing of seventeen different factions. The Islam Army was considered the first among equals, but the list included every major faction in the East Ghouta, such as the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front, plus a host of smaller groups.
Some of these factions have since disappeared, split, or merged with each other. Notably, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union became part of Failaq al-Rahman last February. Their attitudes toward the legitimacy of the court has also fluctuated over time, with disputes sometimes leading to temporary walkouts or permanent defections. Increasingly, however, the court seems to have fallen under the sway of the Islam Army.
The al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front has had a particularly complicated on-and-off (but mostly off) relationship with the Unified Judiciary Council. It suspended its participation in the council almost immediately after the its creation. The Nusra Front’s continued refusal to submit to the council would at times lead the Islam Army to issue explicit threats. “We will not allow either the Nusra Front nor any other group to run courts outside the Unified Judiciary,” Zahran Alloush said in April 2015. However, in the end, the Nusra Front appears to have been allowed to tend to its own business as long as it did not interfere with the Unified Judiciary Council or other joint structures.
The Islam Army did not control the Unified Judiciary Council and sometimes suffered defeats in court, but it had great influence over its overarching politico-military structure and, o ver time, its influence seems to have increased. In addition, these institutions helped ensure relative stability in the East Ghouta and facilitated joint action against Assad, a life or death issue for all groups in the area. For these reasons, even though the Islam Army itself would sometimes ignore court orders, to the great frustration of other factions, Alloush was determined to make sure that everyone else followed them.
When there were serious challenges to the system or to his own supremacy, Alloush showed no mercy. The most notable attempt to break free of the Islam Army’s dominance was when a number of small rival factions formed an alliance called the Ummah Army in autumn 2014, in what may or may not have been a war over profitable smuggling routes. The Islam Army leader made clear his disapproval: “There cannot be two heads for the same body,” he said. After rallying other factions to his side, Alloush launched an enclave-wide crackdown in early 2015 that led to the death of scores of Ummah Army fighters and the arrest of more than 1,300 of its members, by the Islam Army’s own count.
A Very Relative Stability
The Ummah Army’s rebellion and the Nusra Front’s more tempered rejectionism were only two problems among many. In practice, the Unified Judicial Council has always been structurally weak. It faces major difficulties with armed criminal groups, vigilante activity, and rivalries over income from smuggling. All groups operating in the system have retained control over their own armed wings and they jealously guard their independence in financial and military matters. Many commanders also run private prisons, even though in theory they all agree that this should be illegal. The Islam Army is the faction most often accused of such abuses. Numerous witnesses have claimed that the group is holding political detainees—including many suspected sympathizers of the self-proclaimed Islamic State—at secret black sites in the East Ghouta, without informing or involving the Unified Judiciary Council. The group denies this.
However, despite these problems, which are significant, the Unified Judiciary Council has been among the most successful governance projects in all of rebel-held Syria. For two years, it has maintained a relatively high degree of coordination among the various armed, religious, and political groups, provided a modicum of law and order and even, on occasion, allowed ordinary citizens and civilian organizations to pursue legal cases against military commanders. Compared with notorious conflict zones such as Idlib and Aleppo, the East Ghouta appears at least somewhat more stable and well-organized and its military defenses are perhaps the most solid in all of Syria. If not there would have been no way to keep the government out, considering the overwhelming concentration of loyalist forces in and around Damascus.
To a large degree, of course, this was a result of the Islam Army’s dominance. Alloush’s pitiless treatment of the Ummah Army in 2015 must have served as an instructive example to his critics. But even beyond that, other rebel leaders were well aware of the dangers of internal division . Even as they all grumbled about Zahran Alloush’s aspirations for hegemony, they seemed prepared to accept the status quo, since it gave the East Ghouta something that nearly all other rebel territories lacked: an undisputed central force around which to organize, which minimized the risk of infighting and allowed scattered groups to take joint action in their war against Bashar al-Assad.
The Post-Zahran Era
On December 25, 2015, Zahran Alloush was killed in an airstrike. Rebels from across Syria instantly forgot their previous criticism of him and joined in a chorus of praise for the dead leader of the Islam Army. But this vast outpouring of grief and anger also seemed tinged with worry: what would become of the East Ghouta?
The risk of a power vacuum was self-evident, as Alloush had played an essential role with regard to the Islam Army’s organization and identity ever since its creation. If the group were to split or if its influence were to decline too rapidly, this could easily destabilize the unipolar order of the East Ghouta. If factions became more evenly matched, as in Idlib or Aleppo, they would surely become more competitive and instability and violence could creep into the system. With Assad at the gates and Russia now having joined his side, it was no time for infighting.
The Islam Army quickly announced that Issam Boueidani would succeed Alloush as its general commander. This seemed to have been planned in advance and occurred without any noticeable organizational hiccups or splits. In his first few months as leader, Boueidani has kept a much lower profile than Alloush, but the Islam Army has moved boldly to the fore of Syrian Islamist politics, by endorsing and participating in the Geneva III negotiations with the Assad regime. This has led to bitter disputes with more hawkish Islamists, such as the Nusra Front, and rival groups are busily building alternative alliances, even as the Unified Judicial Council remains in place.
The current structure has served the East Ghouta rebel factions well, considering their situation, but it remains to be seen if it can last. There is now rising unrest in the East Ghouta. After a slew of unexplained assassinations, some of its most powerful rebel factions are openly accusing each other of corruption and murder plots. No one seems eager to leap into the unknown, but the question is whether the order established by Zahran Alloush can survive without major reforms—or major purges.