East Ghouta residents demand hardline Islamist coalition leave

AMMAN: Residents of the East Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus are demanding that fighters with a hardline Islamist coalition excluded from a recent ceasefire leave the handful of towns where they are stationed in order to protect the safety of civilians.

Nearly 500 residents of the East Ghouta town of Arbin demonstrated for the second straight day on Monday against Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS)—a coalition dominated by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra.

The demonstrators called for HTS to leave their town so that it could be included under a recent Russian- and Egyptian-backed ceasefire that went into effect in East Ghouta on July 22.

The truce—reportedly negotiated between Ghouta’s most dominant faction Jaish al-Islam and the regime—does not extend into areas within the approximately 75 sq. km of rebel-controlled territory where HTS fighters are positioned. That includes the town of Arbin.

HTS fighters are currently concentrated in the "Central Section" of the regime-blockaded eastern Damascus suburbs, which consists of a collection of towns and villages in southern and western East Ghouta.

Though HTS fighters maintain a presence in the Central Section, the region is largely controlled by Failaq a-Rahman, a Free Syrian Army-affiliated faction that allied itself with HTS during recent inter-rebel clashes with Jaish al-Islam.

 Arbin residents protesting on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta activist Abu Yahyah.

Together, HTS and Failaq make up one of the two main rebel blocs that control the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The other is Jaish al-Islam, which controls the de facto East Ghouta capital of Douma in addition to the northern and the eastern suburbs.

Under the latest ceasefire, residents of Jaish al-Islam-held sections of East Ghouta have seen a marked decrease in bombardment, while their neighbors in the Central Section have not.

“The regime uses Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham as a pretext [for bombardment],” Failaq spokesman Wael Alwan told Syria Direct in a recent interview, “even though there are only dozens of [HTS fighters] remaining.”

Syrian regime warplanes bombed East Ghouta’s Central Section within days of the ceasefire announcement, hitting Arbin as well as the neighboring towns of Zamalka and Ain Tarma, Syria Direct reported last week.

This past Sunday, Civil Defense members in Arbin were still clearing the rubble from regime airstrikes and shelling, the Damascus countryside branch of the Syrian Civil Defense announced on social media.

Residents in the town of Arbin say they want HTS to either disband or leave so they will no longer be a target of Russian-backed airstrikes and Syrian army offensives.

Three residents of Arbin told Syria Direct on Tuesday that Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham’s presence in the town is limited to small groups of fighters and that the hardline coalition does not maintain any military bases in the area.

“There are no military headquarters or strongholds belonging to HTS in Arbin,” Abu al-Yasser Baraa, a member of the General Committee of Arbin, a civil society organization that helped organize Monday’s protest against HTS, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“Even though the Central Section is included in the agreement, the regime and Russia are bombing us in our homes, using Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham as an excuse,” Mohammed al-Ghoutani, an Arbin resident who protested on Monday, told Syria Direct the same day.

“We demonstrated…to emphasize that we reject Jabhat a-Nusra’s presence,” added the 33-year-old, referring to HTS.

Failaq a-Rahman has not publicly commented on the residents’ demands for HTS to leave the area.

Syria Direct spoke with a spokesman in Failaq’s media office on Tuesday, but he refused to comment on how the ceasefire agreement has affected the group’s stance on HTS.

“Failaq a-Rahman welcomes this agreement to lighten the pressure of war, bombs and violent attacks at the hands of the regime against civilians in East Ghouta,” spokesman Wael Alwan told Syria Direct.

The ceasefire agreement appears to have increased tensions between Failaq a-Rahman and Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham.

Members of the two factions purportedly clashed at a checkpoint in the Central Section the day after the ceasefire was announced, injuring 10 fighters between the two sides, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on July 23.

HTS then accused Failaq a-Rahman on July 28 of killing one of its fighters in the East Ghouta town of Hamouriyah in a statement posted on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.

“Members of Failaq a-Rahman have repeatedly cut off roads, attacked and taken weapons from the soldiers of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham,” read the statement.

Failaq a-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan denied the accusation in statements to pro-opposition media outlets, saying that the rebel group’s fighters were defending themselves after the HTS fighter fired at them.

The East Ghouta residents interviewed for this article say they want to see the recent ceasefire succeed in ending the bombardment and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid to the encircled suburbs.

“We’ve been broken down by the siege and, as civilians, there aren’t any solutions for us except for agreements and truces,” said Arbin resident al-Ghoutani.

“It is our right to live a life in which basic necessities are available.” 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.