Rebel in-fighting leaves 12 dead in East Ghouta region of Damascus

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Jaish al-Islam claims that rival rebel groups in the region want to 'eliminate' them

A Syrian family drives on a scooter alongside Syrian Arab Red Crescent lorries carrying aid as they arrive in the town of Saqba, in the eastern Ghouta area (AFP)
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Monday 2 May 2016 11:22 UTC
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At least 12 people have been killed in inter-rebel fighting in the East Ghouta region of Damascus on Thursday, according to local media activists.

Fighters from the powerful Jaish al-Islam group - who control the East Ghouta region - came into conflict with fighters from Failaq a-Rahman, and the Jaish al-Fustat coalition which consists of al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, Fajr al-Ummah and, allegedly, Ahrar a-Sham, though the group has disputed this in the past.

According to the Syria Direct website, tensions between Jaish al-Islam (JAI) and Failaq a-Rahman - the second strongest group operating in the Ghouta region - had been running high for many months, particularly after the latter accused the former of attempting to assassinate one of its leaders in April.

On Thursday morning, fighters from Failaq a-Rahman and Jaish al-Fustat attacked Jaish al-Islam headquarters and the homes of military leaders and Islamic judges in six towns in the region.

Orient News reported that seven Jaish al-Islam members and five civilians had so far been killed in the fighting.

“Failaq a-Rahman and Jaish al-Fustat want to eliminate Jaish al-Islam,” a JAI member told the Syria Direct website on Thursday.

“They want to increase their influence and control on the ground in [East] Ghouta and blockade JAI in Douma alone.”

“We reject this infighting, but our hand’s been forced.”

However, according to the Institute for the Study of War, Jaish al-Islam raided one of Failaq a-Rahman’s headquarters last Monday, suggesting a tit-for-tat attack.

The in-fighting has been a major blow to rebel unity in the region - according to one Jaish al-Islam spokesperson, the fighting has prevented resources reaching fronts fighting against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A spokesperson from rebel group Ahrar a-Sham - who have denied any involvement in the fighting against Jaish al-Islam - described the rebel clashes as “unfortunate” on Thursday.

“We call on our brothers on both sides to immediately stop the fighting,” tweeted the group’s second-in-command, Khaled Abu Anas.

“Let nobody think that they’re winning because all of Damascus is losing.”

According to the pro-Assad Al-Masdar News website, the Syrian Army, backed by Hezbollah and the National Defence Forces, on Friday began what it referred to as the "second phase of the East Ghouta offensive" with the aim of clearing the highway near the Damascus International Airport.

The pro-Assad forces have been targeting the strategic village of Rukabiyah, currently defended by Jaish al-Islam.

Jaish al-Islam have largely controlled the East Ghouta region since 2013, after it was formed from a merger of a number of other rebel factions, and has been seen to use heavy-handed tactics in maintaining its monopoly on power in the region.

The group has been accused of being responsible for the kidnapping and disappearence of secular human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh in 2013, though Jaish al-Islam's leaders have denied this.

Fighting between rebel groups has not been commonplace - apart from the animosity between Syrian rebels and Arab allies of the pro-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) - and the new development has concerned supporters of the Syrian opposition: