Jabhat a-Nusra’s assistance in the Islamic State’s recent takeover of Yarmouk camp surprised outsiders who may have forgotten that all politics, particularly in Syria, are local.
The two extremist groups, which are otherwise rivals across the country, reportedly combinedforces in southern Damascus last week to storm the Palestinian refugee camp through Nusra’s checkpoints on the eastern side of the camp.
Nusra also prevented other rebel groups, including as Jaish al-Islam and Liwa Sham al-Rasul, from entering afterwards to help the beleaguered Palestinian militias inside fighting the Islamic State.
It appears that Nusra aided IS at least in part to avenge Liwa Sham al-Rasul’s role in evictingNusra last month from the southern Damascus towns of Babila and Beit Sahem, where Liwa Sham al-Rasul has a strong presence.
The two groups began fighting after Nusra opened fire on protestors in Beit Sahem, with Liwa demanding that the Islamist group leave the town, Walid al-Agha, the director of the pro-opposition Local Coordination Council for Babila, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.
Nusra quickly relocated near Yarmouk camp after its expulsion from Babila and Beit Sahem, al-Agha says, setting the state for its invasion of the camp.
Q: What is Liwa Sham al-Rasul? Where are they based and who do they follow?
The Liwa Sham al-Rasul is one of the biggest military factions in southern Damascus and it contributed to the liberation of the region.
It has changed its name from al-Huriya Commandos to a-Sham Commandos and then finally to Liwa Sham al-Rasul. It has participated in most of the battles in southern Damascus. They are currently located in the towns of Babila, Yelda and Beit Sahem, as well as East Ghouta.
They do not follow anyone [are independent].
Beit Sahem residents protest against Jabhat a-Nusra last month. Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Amin.
Q: What were the main reasons for the Friday demonstrations on March 6 against Nusra in the towns of Beit Sahem and Babila?
The most important reason was the presence of corrupt Jabhat a-Nusra members who steal and loot warehouses under various pretenses and use intimidation tactics [against civilians].
The fighting began about four months ago when a group loyal to Jabhat a-Nusra assaulted an FSA security checkpoint in Beit Sahem. Masked members of Nusra attempted to steal weapons from one of the checkpoints, but they failed.
Q: Are the reports that Jabhat a-Nusra fired on demonstrators true?
Yes, demonstrations against Nusra were met with gunfire. A young man, Adnan al-Hindi, was killed and tensions remained high, which drew various factions and leaders into the region in an attempt to solve the dispute.
According to residents, another reason that they are against Nusra is because the group closed the road that passes through the Saidi Maqdad crossing, which is part of Babila. The road is the only crossing in southern Damascus and humanitarian organizations deliver aid by way of it.
Q: There is contradictory information concerning the clashes between Jabhat a-Nusra and the Liwa Sham al-Rasul in Beit Sahem. Some say that the clashes are due to Nusra’s firing on civilians during popular demonstrations against it, while others say that they are actually due to arrest of the leader of Liwa Sham al-Rasul. What’s the real reason?
The conflict first began after Nusra fired on the demonstrators [on March 6].According to Liwa Sham al-Rasul, they began fighting with Nusra because of that incident and they only wanted to drive Nusra away [from the demonstrators].
The next day 100 Nusra fighters infiltrated Liwa Sham al-Rasul’s headquarters in Babila and killed six of them, three of whom were unarmed. The imam of a nearby mosque was also killed while he was reciting the call to prayer.
At that time, Nusra controlled a number of buildings and tried to consolidate its position, but Liwa Sham al-Rasul quickly absorbed the shock and, according to a reliable military source, was able to surround the Nusra members. A number of Nusra members were killed or wounded, including their military leader Abu Ali.
The military source added that Liwa Sham al-Rasul’s blockade of Nusra lasted an entire day and ended with an agreement brokered by [the rebel groups] Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. The blockade was broken and an estimated 60 Nusra fighters survived.
In return, Jabhat a-Nusra released the Liwa Sham al-Rasul members that they had captured.
Q: What is the current state between Nusra and Liwa Sham al-Rasul?
There have been many discussions to solve the dispute and the differences between the two sides, but they have all failed.
I think that they might succeed if Nusra responds to the locals’ demands and if it submits to a judicial power that everyone agrees to, although I doubt that will happen.