Who are the different actors fighting in Ghouta?

The suburb of East Ghouta, located on the outskirts of Damascus, is a complicated battleground where many groups vie for power and influence in the region. Although the battles are primarily between the rebels and the government, infighting between the rebels of east Ghouta has recently broken out and threaten to shatter what little rebel unity there is left.

Understanding these actors, its history and its local operations is key to further understanding the Syria conflict.

Jaish al-Islam is the most prominent and strongest group that operates primarily in East Ghouta. Founded in 2013 it is a coalition of Islamist and Salafist units involved in the Syrian Civil War. Approximately 2000 fighters then joined its ranks. The group controls the city of Douma, which is the largest city in eastern Ghouta. The group has had two leaders since 2013, the first being Zahran Aloush, who was later killed in an airstrike at the end of 2015. His successor, and current leader, is Abu Hammam al-Bouwadani, who has taken lead and control of operations.

On the other side of this conflict is Faylaq al-Rahman, which was established in 2012. An official affiliate of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the group was founded by a dissident officer who formed Liwa al-Bara. The group controls much of central and western parts of east Ghouta – Jobar, Zamalka, Ayn Tarma, Madirah, Kafr Batna, and Marj al-Sultan. The group’s leader is Abd al-Nasr Shmeir, a captain who defected from the Syrian Army in early 2012.

Faylaq al-Rahman is allied with Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is mostly made up of members of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate (also known as Jabhat al-Nusra). The current bout of rebel infighting largely originates from the hostility between the HTS and Jaish al-Islam.

However, this is not the first time the rebel groups of east Ghouta have come to blows with one-another. In 2015, the power vacuum borne out of the death of Zahran Alloush led to heavy clashes between Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam. The two groups eventually reconciled, but not until they lost half of east Ghouta to the Syrian Government. As the government forces now make gains in the Qaboun District, it would appear that history is repeating.