Like everywhere else in Syria, the rebel groups fighting in the Damascus region are badly divided on the ground.
A year ago, one could identify at least a handful of rival alliances among the many dozens of factions in and around the Syrian capital. All these factions seemed to be just as busy splitting from each other as they were fighting the regime. But in the past few months, as new money has started to flood in from abroad, a haphazard process of unification has begun to yield results. Today, although many smaller groups continue to fight on separately alongside them, two Islamist alliances have emerged to overshadow the rest.
The Islam Army
The most well-known and probably largest faction in Damascus is the Islam Army of Zahran Alloush. From humble roots in the northeastern satellite town of Douma in 2011, it has grown into one of Syria’s largest guerrilla groups, with affiliates in several areas of the country. Formerly known as the Islam Brigade, it took its current name at a ceremony marking the inclusion of new groups on September 29, 2013.
While many of the Islam Army’s subfactions seem to have been cobbled together from local rebel groups that began without any discernible ideology, its leadership is firmly Islamist: Alloush is a longtime Salafi activist and the son of a Saudi Arabia–based theologian. His virulently sectarian rhetoric has found support among like-minded groups, and in November 2013 the Islam Army became a founding faction in the Islamic Front, a large, countrywide alliance that seeks to transform Syria into a Sunni theocracy.
The Greater Damascus Operations Room
But the rise of such hardline, Gulf-funded Salafism within the Damascus insurgency is not the whole story. Other brands of Islamic thought have also thrived among the rebels, and more moderate religious movements indigenous to the Damascus area have in fact contributed greatly to the rebellion there. In addition, Alloush’s dominance in Douma didn’t sit well with some other local groups, and his announcement of the Islam Army in September 2013 was immediately followed by intrigues and protests among the rebels in Douma.
In early November 2013, a large number of Islamist rebel groups in the wider Damascus region announced a new collaborative structure called the “Greater Damascus Operations Room.” This structure excluded the most radical jihadis, such as al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—but it also excluded the Islam Army.
The Formation of Ajnad al-Sham
Later that month, five of the most important groups within in the Greater Damascus Operations Room declared the creation of the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (al-ittihad al-islami li-ajnad al-sham or, in full, the Islamic Union of the Soldiers of the Levant). These factions were well-established on the outskirts of the capital, and several had been part of earlier Islamist rebel coalitions already in summer 2012.
- The al-Habib al-Mustafa Brigades
- The Amjad al-Islam Gathering
- The Sahaba Brigades and Battalions
- The Shabab al-Houda Battalions
- The Der al-Asima Brigade
All in all, the leaders of Ajnad al-Sham claimed that these five component blocs controlled a total of 53 subfactions and some 15,000 fighters. (Of course, such self-reported numbers cannot be verified and should be treated with skepticism.) The Ajnad al-Sham leader Abu Mohammed al-Fateh claimed that his group had affiliates even beyond the Damascus area and the surrounding Ghouta region, including in southern Syria, the Qalamun Mountains to the north, and as far away as in the Idlib and Hama countryside.
Abu Mohammed al-Fateh
According to Kulluna Shuraka, a widely read Syrian opposition news site based in the United Arab Emirates, Abu Mohammed was born in 1983. He studied Islam at the prestigious al-Azhar University in Cairo and later in Lebanon. While working as a watch salesman in the Ghouta region east of Damascus, he took part in the first anti-regime demonstrations in the town of Douma on March 15, 2011, and was soon sought by the authorities.
As the uprising turned violent, Abu Mohammed quickly became a leading commander on the eastern Ghouta rebel scene. He was elected head of the Shabab al-Houda Battalions, an Islamist group in the eastern Ghouta region that went on to help create the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union.
Two Big Damascus Alliances
Today, Ajnad al-Sham appears to be the second-biggest rebel coalition in the Damascus area, after the Islam Army. An Islamic Front commander from Aleppo has said that the Ajnad al-Sham leadership is trying to enter the Islamic Front, and this may of course be how things end up.
But on the local level, Ajnad al-Sham seems to serve as a counterweight to Alloush’s Islam Army as well as to more hardline jihadis, like al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. Indeed, Ajnad al-Sham’s brand of Islamism appears to be more influenced by local Damascene scholars than by the Gulf-based hardliners favored by many commanders in the Islamic Front. More on that tomorrow.