Yesterday’s article on Syria in Crisis described the political order established by the Islam Army and other Sunni rebel factions in the East Ghouta region. Under the leadership of Zahran Alloush, the Islam Army leader who was killed last December 25, several institutions were set up from 2014 onward to govern the besieged enclave. Despite some internal conflict, the East Ghouta groups have since then managed to maintain a joint body known as the Unified Judiciary Council, which governs the enclave in line with Islamic law.
That system is now under pressure. Following Alloush’s death, tension increased between the East Ghouta’s political blocs. Some now seem to aspire to strengthen their position at the Islam Army’s expense.
The beginning of a truce in parts of Syria—a truce that does not seem to be functioning well in the East Ghouta where President Bashar al-Assad’s army has continued to press forward—and of negotiations in Geneva have further inflamed relations between some groups in the enclave. The Islam Army has taken a strong stance in favor of negotiations, with Zahran Alloush’s cousin and close companion, Mohammed Alloush, heading the opposition diplomats in Geneva. But hardline jihadists such as the Nusra Front, which is a branch of al-Qaeda, understandably view these talks as a threat to their own security. They accordingly view the Islam Army’s participation as a form of treason. Relations between the Islam Army and the jihadists, which were at one point quite friendly, are now sliding into semi-overt hostility. At the same time, a scandal involving the attempted assassination on one of the East Ghouta’s most influential religious scholars, Sheikh Khaled Tafour, has highlighted cracks between the Islam Army and its more moderate rivals.
It is possible that some combination of internal reforms and purges of dissident factions can restore balance to the system and ensure continued coordination among the main factions of the East Ghouta. But there is also the chance that, in the long run, the system created by Zahran Alloush and his local allies in 2014 will collapse altogether, with unpredictable consequences for the wider rebellion.
A New Round of Bloc Formation
In Syria’s fragmented insurgency, the Islam Army’s heavy-handed tactics always caused some resentment among weaker factions. Yet the group was never powerful enough to suppress all dissent at once, while also fighting a war. In order to gather a critical mass of armed factions, it had to negotiate its every move with allies as well as rivals, all of whom sought to preserve their own autonomy. A recurring theme in the politics of the East Ghouta has therefore been a game of balance in which smaller and mid-sized factions have banded together to improve their collective bargaining position. With Alloush now out of the picture, another such round of coalition formation seems to be taking place.
The Rise of Failaq al-Rahman
In February, an important local group known as the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union merged its units in the East Ghouta with those of another significant faction, known as Failaq al-Rahman. Their combined forces have since operated under the Failaq al-Rahman name and are now jointly led by that group’s leader, the defected army captain Abdel-Naser Shmeir. Failaq al-Rahman has thus emerged as the second-largest faction in the East Ghouta and as the most credible rival to the Islam Army in years.
Both groups continue to cooperate on the frontlines, but considering the longstanding tensions between the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union and the Islam Army, the merger looks like it could slide into a more wide-ranging challenge. To further underscore that point, a spokesperson for Ajnad al-Sham/Failaq al-Rahman said at the time of their merger that Failaq al-Rahman now formed “a central force for the East Ghouta axis,” which is the role the Islam Army has always tried to reserve for itself. With customary politeness, he also accused “militias from the notoriously ill-reputed security apparatus of our brothers in the Islam Army” of having attacked three of the group’s bases and arrested its members. The Islam Army denied the charges.
The Creation of the Fustat Army
On the other side of the political spectrum, in mid-March hardline salafi groups announced the creation of an alliance called the Fustat Army. It gathered the local branches of the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, as well as a smaller group known as Fajr al-Umma.
However, Ahrar al-Sham immediately denied its membership in the Fustat Army. According to some reports, the Ahrar al-Sham leadership in northern Syria had been trying to stop the alliance, but local fighters paid them no heed, being caught up in the local dynamics of the East Ghouta enclave.
The affair seems far from settled, but it has clearly unnerved the leaders of the Islam Army. One of the group’s most high-profile religious officials, Abu Anas al-Kanakri, recently wrote that the Nusra Front had “hastened to form the Fustat Army” because they feared the “success of the moderate Islam Army.” But it seems unclear who fears whom the most.
The Islam Army will presumably find it more difficult to dominate the political scene in the East Ghouta after its rivals have banded together in this way, especially if they help each other withstand pressure. While the creation of larger blocs of rebel groups might seem like a step toward greater unity, it can also cause more intense competition. With that in mind, it is interesting to note that the Syrian government recently agreed to prisoner swaps involving both Failaq al-Rahman and the Fustat Army.
The Attack on Sheikh Tafour
Relations between the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman now appear to have deteriorated further as a result of a mysterious assassination plot.
On March 28, masked assailants ambushed a convoy in the East Ghouta in an attempt to kill Sheikh Khaled Tafour. A Sunni theologian from Douma, Tafour, who is also known as Abu Suleiman, is the former chief judge of the Unified Judiciary Council. Though he resigned from that position in August 2015, he still remains a member of its seven-member leadership. Tafour is also closely connected to Failaq al-Rahman, since one of the most important subfactions of the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union—which, as was noted earlier, has just joined Failaq al-Rahman—is led by his religious students. Even beyond these ties, Tafour had long been a thorn in the side of the Islam Army, which he accused of seeking to subvert the independence of the Unified Judiciary Council. Indeed, Tafour’s resignation last summer seems to have been a result of these strained relations.
The attack against Tafour was not the first time something of that nature has happened. The East Ghouta has long been plagued by unexplained assassinations, including the October 2015 shooting of Abu Shujaa al-Azhari, Tafour’s predecessor as head of the Unified Judiciary Council. Some have whispered that these killings are the work of the Islam Army, but the group denies this and few have dared to voice such allegations openly. There are of course plenty of other conceivable suspects, including any number of internal rivals, radical jihadists, criminal groups, government security branches, and foreign intelligence services.
With the March 28 attack on Tafour, the accusations against the Islam Army exploded into the open. One of Tafour’s companions was killed in the attack and the sheikh himself was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg. But he survived and has now received the public backing of a wide spectrum of opposition sympathizers. On April 11, the Unified Judiciary Council appointed a five-man council of top clerics to investigate the attack. Although leadership fell to his colleague Abu Adnan Erbeen, Tafour took his seat among the investigators and is not likely to let the matter slide.
Accusations and Counter-Accusations
Already, the contours of conflict are taking shape. Two days after the attempted assassination, both the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman issued statements claiming that the other group had invaded one of their local headquarters. Members of the Islam Army were apparently wounded in the clashes.
On April 5, Failaq al-Rahman released a statement saying that one of the men who attacked Tafour had been captured and identified as a certain Mohsen Abdessalam Badreddine. By his own admission, Failaq al-Rahman announced, Badreddine was a member of a secret assassination cell within the Islam Army.
The Islam Army responded immediately, saying that while Badreddine had indeed been part of the Islam Army in the past, he had since been expelled for various infractions. Perhaps, they added, he now worked for the Islamic State?
Failaq al-Rahman did not budge. The group released a videotape of Badreddine telling interrogators that he had been a member of the Islam Army for four years. According to his statement—which whether truthful or not was clearly given under duress—he worked for a certain Abu Sufyan, who had at one point left the Islam Army but was then recalled to run a secret death squad within its internal security agency. Badreddine said Abu Sufyan’s team had been tasked with murdering certain critics of the Islam Army and claimed to have been told that Tafour was “an instigator” who had been organizing demonstrations against the Islam Army. Therefore, he had to die. Apart from Tafour, he said, the cell was planning to assassinate other leading figures in the East Ghouta, including Captain Abdel-Naser Shmeir and other leaders of Failaq al-Rahman. He also claimed that the Islam Army’s top religious scholar, Abu Abderrahman al-Kaakeh, had issued a secret ruling legitimizing the murder of Tafour and the rest of the Islam Army’s rivals.
The Islam Army has scoffed at these accusations and Kaakeh claims that the entire testimony is a forgery. Maybe it is, or maybe it isn’t, and perhaps both factions are lying?
But at the end of the day the situation looks troublesome. Either the Islam Army has been caught red-handed in an attempt to murder leading opposition figures in the East Ghouta; or, alternatively, Failaq al-Rahman and its allies are themselves conspiring to subvert the Islam Army after the death of Zahran Alloush. There is plainly an increasing risk of rebel infighting in the East Ghouta. That would be a disaster for the insurgency, but to Bashar al-Assad it would be excellent news.