Political currents buried by Army of Islam in Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus
Enab Baladi -Yamen Moghrabi
Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction has always provoked debate among the circles of Eastern Ghouta’s residents in Damascus, as well as among activists, and journalists, whether of political or ideological backgrounds close to or far from its political and religious line. This controversy has prevailed since the faction took control of the Eastern Ghouta until its withdrawal along with the displacement of its residents.
The Army of Islam has been accused of fighting those who deviate from its ideology line, by detaining them in al-Tubah and al-Baton prisons, besides other unproven accusations of assassinations targeting some political figures with a popular base in Douma city of Rif Dimashq province, among of which is the physician Adnan Wehbe.
Since 2013, the Army of Islam has dominated large areas of the Eastern Ghouta region, making Douma city the center of its influence. However, the faction withdrew from the region towards the north of Syria in April 2018 under an agreement with Russia, preceded by an intensive military campaign targeting Ghouta cities.
Political currents suppressed by the Army of Islam
Amer al-Saleem, an alias name for a political activist from the “Nasserite current” who preferred not to reveal his real name for security reasons, remained in Eastern Ghouta until 2015.
Al-Saleem told Enab Baladi that the Army of Islam had not prevented activists or political figures from conducting their work directly at the beginning of the Syrian revolution.
However, after liberating Ghouta, the Army of Islam took control and attempted to dominate all sectors, under the pretext of fighting in the front lines and freeing the region, “these attempts by the Army of Islam were disturbing to the residents” said al-Saleem.
Although many activists worked in service, medical, and relief fields in Ghouta, their roles were marginalized by the Army of Islam.
Rafea Hassan, also a pseudonym for a civil activist who worked in the relief and media field inside of Douma, shares the same opinion as al-Saleem against the Army of Islam.
Hassan said to Enab Baladi that the Army of Islam could not suppress any non-Islamic currents or prevent their existence on the ground at first, back then the faction monitored these movements and waited for them to be weakened, while it strived to gain public support in Douma city and its surrounding areas.
Hassan also pointed out the impact of the region’s social environment in helping the Army of Islam to impose itself, as “the vast majority of the Eastern Ghouta’s population is conservative; it was easy for the faction to gain their support through its rhetoric of religion and drag residents into its side through its resonant Salafist speeches,” as per Hassan’s expression.
Accusations against the Army of Islam were not only related to the activists’ work but also included other military factions or political currents that had a similar line of that of the Army of Islam.
Al-Saleem added, “everyone has suffered from the faction and its practices, activists, factions and other currents’ members of different ideologies, regardless of their political background, whether national, communist, or Nasserist, was subjected to constant harassment and was treated as an enemy by the Army of Islam, in an attempt to bring everyone under its control.”
Why did not political currents confront the Army of Islam?
“There was no room for resistance,” al-Saleem said, “the Army of Islam was fully prepared and equipped, while the rest of factions were less powerful. The Nasserite current had a popular base with a small military more like a police force to protect establishments only; hence, we were unable to actually resist” al-Saleem added.
He said, “the Army of Islam did not hesitate to detain people; therefore, many preferred to work in service sectors, such as the directorate of civil affairs, municipalities, cleaning streets, digging graves, providing machinery and activating the agricultural sector.”
Regarding the opposing political currents’ affiliation to this faction’s ideologies, al-Saleem pointed out that “there were Nasserites, Muslim brothers, and a few Communists, those, in particular, were hiding their affiliations by all means.”
On the other hand, Hassan described the period after 2013 as the “elimination period,” during of which the team of the Syrian Violations Documentation Center (VDC) was kidnapped, followed by a campaign entitled “cleansing the country from the abomination of corruption” against other non-Islamic factions launched by the Army of Islam.
All opponents of the Army of Islam were detained and eliminated from Douma city, including the Jaysh al-Ummah (the Army of the Nation), which was equal in number to the Army of Islam but less organized. The Army of the Nation’s leaders, Abu Subhi Taha, and Abu Ali Khebhiya were imprisoned before the faction dissolution afterward.
According to Hassan, the campaign was a pivotal juncture as the Army of Islam established control over all sectors, including civilian and service ones. The faction restricted the authority of Nizar al-Samadi, the head of Douma’s municipality, and limited his role to minor tasks under the surveillance of the faction’s security division.
Did political currents have actual public support in the Ghouta region?
Several observations were raised suggesting that political currents in Ghouta did not have much influence even before 2011.
Nonetheless, al-Saleem responded to these remarks by saying that “Nasserites were scattered throughout Douma city which was not in their advantage, so it was easy to distinguish Baathists from Nasserites in local cafes, especially those of the former generation clinging to ideas of the Nasserite current and bequeathed it to their children regardless of the distortion attempts for years, including myself, and several others like me.”
Assassinations in Ghouta included some prominent Nasserite figures, such as the physician Adnan Wehbe, one of the most famous figures in the area whose killers remain unknown to date.
In this regard, al-Saleem said, “at the beginning, many accused the regime, and as days went by, they started to change their minds, without accusing a particular faction or individual.”
Besides, many medical and relief-staff members were subjected to harassment that sometimes ended by beating them.
Army of Islam responds to accusations by activists
Enab Baladi contacted the spokesman for the Army of Islam, Hamza Bairkdar, and asked him about activists’ accusations of “dictatorial” practices against activists, journalists, and politicians in the Eastern Ghouta region.
“The Syrian revolution is a popular uprising that commenced in early 2011, with demands as clear as day. It called for freedom, justice, dignity, and the overthrow of the regime with all of its symbols and pillars, and from these principles and goals, the Army of Islam arose as did the rest of the revolutionary factions,” Bairkdar said.
He added, “the Army of Islam did not have an agenda to confront or combat other political currents and parties, because we form a part of the people who started this revolution in spite of their difference”.
Bairkdar pointed out to the primary goal of the faction, which is “defend our people against those who killed and violated their rights, the tyrannical regime of al-Assad and its allies.”
The spokesman denied those accusations by saying, “allegations about the Army of Islam’s dictatorship against other currents are untrue and unfounded.”
Bairkdar added the Army of Islam gave freedom to some political currents to practice their activities “in a way which does not violate morals and the revolution’s principles,” considering that “some parties were not before in Ghouta, while others’ activities were limited to printing along with other members for publication such as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) / the Party of Liberation.
As for activists and civil work, Bairkdar confirmed that “the door for activists and civil work organizations was wide open.”, adding “of course they had the freedom to work within the revolutionary disciplines set by our values and traditions, and what goes in conformity with what we have experienced in Ghouta amid shelling, being under siege, starvation and oppression policy subjected by the al-Assad regime and its allies against Ghouta’s residents. ”
Who are Syrian Nasserists?
Nasserism in Syria, in its current form, is a political movement that emerged after its separation from Egypt in 1961, at the end of the United Arab Republic reign.
Even though ideas of Arab nationalism and the call for establishing a unified Arab country, which includes countries from the ocean to the gulf existed and spread among the Syrian circles before the arrival of Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in Egypt, the name “Nasserist” became more apparent after Syria’s separation from the United Arab Republic in 1961.
Nasserists believe in the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ideas concerning the Arab nationalism and the economic policies.
They have established several parties, including the Socialist Union Party (founded in 1962), but they were persecuted following the Baath party’s coup d’état in 1963.
There are many Nasserists who are not affiliated with openly Nasserist parties due to the absence of political life in Syria.
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