BEIRUT: As a U.S.-led coalition pursues airstrikes against Al-Qaeda groups in Syria and Iraq, Syrian rebel and jihadist militias in the sprawling Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus have been experiencing their own, largely separate developments in their battles with both the regime and ISIS.
Much is being made of the coalition’s aerial campaign against ISIS and other groups – how the strikes could benefit the regime, and how it highlights the lack of rebel ability to defeat ISIS.
Also, the regime’s recent advances around the capital are described as part of its steady progress against a dwindling, fragmented group of clashing militias.
The reality is somewhat different.
The southern Damascus “front” is actually three separate zones: the Western Ghouta, with towns such as Moadamieh and Daraya; a small pocket in the middle, with places such as the Yarmouk Palestinian camp neighborhood and the lower-income neighborhood al-Hajar al-Aswad; and the sprawling Eastern Ghouta, containing the daily targets for regime airstrikes and shelling: places such as Douma, Harasta, Mliha, Dukhanieh and Adra.
While ISIS had a presence in the Eastern Ghouta earlier in the year, Zahran Alloush, the head of the Islam Army militia, declared war on the extremists in August, coinciding with the month of Ramadan.
The Islam Army is a member of the Islamic Front, a coalition of seven conservative and largely Salafist militias that was formed late last year. But the Front has never functioned particularly cohesively as a unit and some of its members have a strong presence in only a single part of the country.
Alloush played a chief role in the formation of the “unified military operations room” for the Eastern Ghouta, and assembled four other groups: Ahrar al-Sham, a fellow Front member, and three non-members: the Islamic Union of Ajnad al-Sham, the Rahman Legion, and the Habib Mustafa Brigades.
These make up the overwhelming majority of the Ghouta rebels, according to an anti-regime journalist from the civilian media sector.
A slogan for a nationwide Friday protest early this month even saluted the effort, calling it “an example to be followed.”
The journalist estimated that some 400 ISIS members were either killed, captured, defected or fled the Ghouta during August, punctuated by two major battles, in the suburbs of Maydaa and Misraba.
“The war against ISIS did away with them nearly completely in the Eastern Ghouta,” the journalist said.
“It’s believed that there are only 17 members left but they’re on the run, and a poster has been circulated with their photos, offering a 1 million pound reward ($6,300) for their capture.”
The only significant ISIS presence that remains is in the small, separate pocket of southern Damascus, around 150 to 200 militants in al-Hajar al-Aswad.
“There’s of course a fear that these remaining people might be planning car bombs or something else” while at large in the Eastern Ghouta, the journalist continued.
As the direct threat from ISIS has receded, the last few weeks have seen tit-for-tat seizures of territory between the regime and the rebels.
In mid-August, regime troops seized the suburb of Mliha from the rebel coalition, in what was described as a major gain because of its proximity to the highway leading to the Damascus international airport.
But at the beginning of this month, the rebels seized the nearby suburb of Dukhanieh in a rapid advance that saw them take an area that had been under regime control since the outbreak of the uprising.
Regime troops and paramilitary allies have been expending considerable effort to re-take Dukhanieh ever since, and in recent days pro-regime media outlets have claimed that the campaign is nearly complete, only to see the progress stall.
A spokesman for the Rahman Legion said the taking of Dukhanieh – only 3 kms from downtown Damascus – was largely ignored by media outlets that cover the Syrian war.
“Unfortunately, the international media wants to see the regime making progress,” the spokesman said. “The planning and coordination for Dukhanieh were very successful.”
But over the last week, regime forces have re-taken the sprawling Adra area, made up of several different districts – these had been in rebel hands since December of last year.
The Islam Army justified its retreat from Adra by saying the area was no longer of any “strategic” value, as the journalist questioned whether the regime would be able to follow up its gains with any further significant moves.
He added that in any case, the rebels appeared to be banking on a strategy of attrition in the ranks of the regime and its paramilitary allies as a result of their drawn-out campaigns to re-take these areas.
Pro-regime media outlets and social media have already begun speculating that the regime will now be able to concentrate its efforts on the rebel stronghold of Douma.
The journalist argued that such a campaign would require tens of thousands of troops, playing down the possibility of a rebel collapse in its Eastern Ghouta “capital.”
“But on the other hand, Alloush recently issued his latest ‘call to arms’ to the population of the Eastern Ghouta, meaning that while the rebels are decently equipped in military terms, they still need of a larger force on the ground,” he said.
According to several anti-regime activists, Alloush’s role in the war has long generated doubts that his group is less committed to fighting the regime than it is to maintaining an independent power base.
However, as the journalist put it, “while there are always question-marks about Alloush, the fact is that he promised to defeat ISIS, and he has come through on his promises for now.”
“The joint operations room promised to liberate Dukhanieh, and it did so in a matter of hours,” he added.
“Moreover, the joint operations room he set up includes the Rahman Legion,” he said, referring to a large rebel group that is considered dedicated to the fall of the regime, and lacks an ideological agenda.
“Its commander, a defected army captain named Abdel-Nasser Shmeir, is the military commander of the alliance, while Alloush is the overall head. The cooperation between them is working, and the Rahman Legion is growing in numbers,” the journalist said.
Meanwhile, the assassinations of rebel figures continue to cloud the situation – Monday saw the latest attempt, when an IED targeted the head of the Umma Army militia, which is not a part of the joint operations room set up by Alloush and his allies. The commander, Ahmad Taha, survived the attempt, the second in several months.
The journalist speculated that assassinations and attempted killings of rebel leaders could be staged by a number of parties, with the regime among the leading suspects.
Another anti-regime observer of the conflict, active in political and media circles, commented that the Eastern Ghouta rebels appeared to show “implicit support” for the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS, even though the official rhetoric might indicate otherwise.
One target of the U.S.-led campaign, the Nusra Front, is active in Eastern Ghouta and is not part of the joint operations room. For now, Nusra has enjoyed a decent working relationship with the other militias, and its estimated 500-plus fighters, largely spread out on different front-line positions, might not constitute an easy target.
The airstrikes in the north and the east of the country have yet to have translate in any meaningful way on the course of events in the Eastern Ghouta – where ISIS has already been largely defeated by rebel groups, and much more cheaply than with precision-guided bombs and missiles.