Security ‘deteriorates’ in Damascus suburbs as rebels usurp police stations, install paramilitary

Armed gunmen from the Failaq a-Rahman rebel faction reportedly stormed a police station on Sunday in the opposition-held Damascus suburbs, a police spokesman tells Syria Direct.

The rebel fighters drove out the policemen, seized all of their equipment and occupied the building in the latest in a nearly two-month wave of Failaq attacks on East Ghouta police stations and officers.

“It’s chaos here, and things will continue like this so long as Failaq a-Rahman prohibits the police and the judiciary from doing their jobs,”  Mohammad, a spokesman with the East Ghouta Free Police, tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.

The recent targeting of police officers and their facilities comes amidst an internecine, inter-rebel civil war in the cluster of towns and villages east of Damascus known as East Ghouta. The rebel power struggle dates back to late April and is paralyzing the opposition pocket, home to 400,000 people.

On one side of the rebel war is Jaish al-Islam, East Ghouta’s largest opposition faction, which controls the northern and eastern portions of the suburbs. On the other side is Failaq a-Rahman and the Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, which control the remaining territory, also referred to as East Ghouta’s “Central Section.”

 An East Ghouta Free Police officer in April. Photo courtesy of the Damascus Police Force.

The infighting has brought a near-total shutdown of all movement—commercial, humanitarian and medical—across East Ghouta with health care workers and aid deliveries alike caught in the crossfire.

The East Ghouta Free Police, a force intended to be independent of rebel groups, is the most recent casualty of the conflict. After its headquarters in the Central Section came under attack “on more than five occasions,” the group announced it would begin suspending its operations in the Failaq a-Rahman-controlled territory last month.

Failaq a-Rahman sidestepped the accusations of attacking police officers when asked by Syria Direct.

“I have no details on this matter,” said Wael Alwan, a Failaq spokesman. “I don’t have the time to look into internal matters.”

Q: Describe what happened at your police station in the Central Section of East Ghouta on Sunday.

Failaq a-Rahman seized the police force’s transportation office in the Central Section of East Ghouta. The officers in the police station were let go, but all of the equipment—and the building—is still under Failaq a-Rahman’s control.

Failaq has repeatedly attacked our police stations, which is yet another example of their trying to forcibly bring the police under their control.

Q: Elaborate further when you say that Failaq has “repeatedly attacked our police stations in East Ghouta.”

On more than five occasions, Failaq a-Rahman has attacked our police stations and detained our officers by force.

One of our men was attacked last Friday while heading home when someone from Failaq attacked him. The assailant cut his name onto the officer’s back with a sharp object. The police officer is just a poor man from Saqba who works as a security guard for the Civil Defense Station, but now he’s receiving medical treatment. He doesn’t have anything to do with the rebel groups.

In another incident, Failaq encircled the Central Section’s main police headquarters. They arrested and beat the deputy chief of police and brought him to their Hamouriyah Police Station. After holding the deputy chief for several hours, Failaq sent him a message. They said: “You’ve got two choices. Either you follow Failaq a-Rahman or you follow the military judiciary,” which also belongs to Failaq.

Q: As a result of these incidents, are you even able to operate in the Central Section of East Ghouta any more?

The police force lost control and is no longer operating in the Central Section, as we’re not able to perform our job effectively.

All influence and authority is entirely lost to Failaq a-Rahman in the Central Section. It’s chaos, and things will continue like this so long as Failaq prohibits the police and the judiciary from doing their jobs.

Failaq a-Rahman has also formed what they call the “military police,” which they established as an alternative to the Free Police. We, however, are continuously working with organizations across East Ghouta to pressure Failaq to keep the Free Police as a neutral, civil society entity as opposed to a military-affiliated organization.

Q: What does it mean to effectively shut down the police force in half of East Ghouta?

It means a deterioration of security in the Central Section. With nobody to hold Failaq accountable, they will turn into shabiha. There will be nothing to deter them from committing crimes such as their recent attacks on the police and the Civil Defense, their opening fire on medical staff and their robbing of aid organizations.

As a result, there are a number of institutions that refuse to work in Failaq a-Rahman-controlled territory because they are afraid. East Ghouta is not a safe environment to work in.

Q: Do you face these same issues with Jaish al-Islam?

We really don’t have any issues with Jaish al-Islam. There is a mutual understanding about the crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the police and the ones that Jaish al-Islam handles. The police oversee all crimes with the exception of matters dealing with the regime and Daesh. The police force does not touch these crimes, and they are transferred to Jaish al-Islam’s internal security branch.

Q: Was the Free Police able to do its job effectively before the infighting?

Before the infighting, the police force handled security across all of East Ghouta. Every faction recognized the police and the judiciary with the exception of Jabhat a-Nusra which formed its own Sharia court, as well as a few incidents with some members of Failaq a-Rahman.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.