Large scale protests against Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham in Ghouta

The east Ghouta suburb of Damascus has hosted large scale protests in response to the clashes between three of the region’s main rebel groups: the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Faylaq al-Rahman, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jaish al-Islam.

The clashes began in the last weekend of April when Jaish al-Islam struck the positions the HTS in an unannounced offensive, rapidly capturing the headquarters and positions of the group over the course of the weekend. The remaining HTS members sought refuge with Faylaq al-Rahman which responded to the offensive by attacking Jaish al-Islam in turn. Some 169 people, an unknown number of civilians among them, were killed during the clashes that lasted a little over a week.

From the onset of the clashes, the suburb witnessed widespread protests by civilians and activists condemning the infighting. Although some protesters were partisan and took sides with one group against another, most simply called for an end to the infighting and accused the HTS of bringing discord to the rebel unity. In these instances, protesters sought to re-invoke the spirit of the 2011 protests by chanting slogans from that era and condemning the HTS as an al-Qaeda affiliate, given the official designation of the HTS’ predecessor (Jabhat al-Nusra) as such. Speaking at the protest, individual activists called at Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman to put aside their infighting and for the latter to stop supporting the HTS.

This, however, will be a difficult task. Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman have a lot of bad blood between them. The two already fought a war in Ghouta in 2016 after the death of Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush created a power vacuum. That period of infighting cost the rebels nearly half of east Ghouta to the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Now, history seems to be repeating itself: taking advantage of the infighting, the SAA made significant gains in the nearby district of Barzeh over the weekend, culminating in an evacuation deal that will see the rebels and their families leave for Idlib, just like so many others who have left before. Similarly, the SAA has reached an agreement that will evacuate the HTS from the Yarmouk Camp in southern Damascus. The rebels in Ghouta may soon find themselves the only opposition force in the city.