Failaq a-Rahman announced last week that it would close down all its security branches from all towns in East Ghouta and transfer its prisoners to the Unified Judiciary Council, an opposition civilian court.

By closing its extra-judicial security offices manned by rebel fighters, Failaq a-Rahman ceded its self-appointed role in law enforcement.

But that only happened because of popular pressure, namely, recent protests in the Ghouta town of Arbeen over allegations of misconduct. In May, rebel incompetence led to the loss of a large chunk of East Ghouta to the regime. The Marj region, Ghouta’s breadbasket, was key to the survival of the more than one million civilians living under a tight regime blockade.

“The protests were an embarrassment for Failaq a-Rahman’s leadership and caused them to acquiesce to the protestors’ demands,” Abi Ali a-Shami, an activist from Arbeen, tells Syria Direct’s Shady al-Jundy.

The Unified Judiciary Council was established in 2014 with the backing of 17 armed factions in the east Damascus suburbs, including Failaq a-Rahman. The council is a civilian judicial body that deals with criminal law, civilian disputes and family-status issues.

Earlier this week, the Unified Judiciary Council confirmed in a publicly issued statement that it had received Failaq a-Rahman’s detainees and that the security forces belonging to Failaq a-Rahman left the towns in East Ghouta.

“This decision came as a way to end protests against it, allowing Failaq a-Rahman to focus on military matters,” the lawyer a-Shami tells Syria Direct.

“We were responding to a popular demand,” Wael Owan, a spokesman for Failaq a-Rahman tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani.

Interview with Wael Olwan, spokesman for Failaq a-Rahman.

Q: Why did Failaq a-Rahman close its security branches across East Ghouta at this time?

After opposition forces took control of East Ghouta and merged their priorities, the security challenges for the opposition factions increased.

There have been hundreds of attempts by regime intelligence agencies to infiltrate the ranks of the opposition.

After the defeat of IS [in East Ghouta] there is also the constant threat of IS safe houses and sleeper cells.

We’ve been supporting the Unified Judicial Council and the police force so that these institutions are fully prepared to protect against threats that were previously handled by the factions.

Once we were sure of their readiness, we held a meeting and issued the statement announcing the withdrawal of Failaq a-Rahman’s security forces.

 Protest in Arbeen against Failaq a-Rahman. Photo courtesy of Damascus Now’s Facebook page.

Q: Did this decision emerge from specific pressures?

It wasn’t pressure. We were responding to a popular demand, put forward by the Outer Damascus Provincial Council, that we encourage the principle that legal specialists (courts, police and security officials) and civil institutions should carry out their civil duties to their full capacity.

Q: Does the Unified Judicial Council have the ability to enforce its rule in East Ghouta and does this power extend over the armed factions?

It does have real power. The Unified Judicial Council derives its strength from its respect and legitimacy.

Its legitimacy gives it the ability to enforce its decisions.

Q: Do you think this will be an effective step, given that other factions, Jaish al-Islam being the most prominent, haven’t done the same?

Jaish al-Islam isn’t present in all of East Ghouta. Rather, they are mostly in Douma and its countryside. Jaish al-Islam has its own courts in these areas.

What we hope for and encourage is that other factions take similar steps.

Q: There are reports that Failaq a-Rahman took this step to gain popularity at the expense of Jaish al-Islam. How do you respond to those allegations?

They aren’t true. This is an initiative for the Syrian revolution, it isn’t just limited to East Ghouta. This decision comes from the faith of Failaq a-Rahman’s leadership in the role of civil institutions and their capabilities.

We’ve already begun to apply this decision and we’ve found it’s widely welcomed. The Unified Judicial Council published a statement on this.

Interview with Abi Ali a-Shami a lawyer and activist in Arbeen, East Ghouta.

Q: Why do you think Failaq a-Rahman made this decision now?

East Ghouta is currently seeing a struggle for influence between the rebel factions in the area.

On top of this, there has been pushback in some of the towns in East Ghouta against the repressiveness of Failaq a-Rahman’s police.

Arbeen, in particular, has been the site of a number of protests after Failaq a-Rahman arrested Abu Ayman Mufeed [Ed.: a local fighter with Failaq a-Rahman who split with them about a month ago and formed his own brigade. Then Failaq arrested him.]

Mufeed created a new faction, Liwa Arbeen, and withdrew his support for Failaq. His arrest prompted protests calling for the release of all the detainees held by Failaq a-Rahman’s security headquarters. The protests were an embarrassment for Failaq a-Rahman’s leadership and caused them to acquiesce to the protestors’ demands.

Q: How do civilians view this decision?

Civilians [in East Ghouta] see this as a victory.

Failaq a-Raham announced it would be transferring the tasks of its security branches to the Unified Judicial Council within 15 days.

The residents of East Ghouta hope this step will lead to more justice and help to strengthen the military response to the regime’s advances.

Q: Do you see Failaq’s decision as a move to shift away from day-to-day patrols on its turf and focus on the battlefield?

In light of the regime’s advances on Failaq positions in the southern villages of East Ghouta, this decision came as a way to end the protests, allowing Failaq a-Rahman to focus on military matters.

These latest protests were a response to the misconduct of rebel factions. The protests put pressure on the rebel factions and increased the desire among some groups to split off from larger factions in the area. This, despite an agreement between the factions in East Ghouta forbidding the formation of any new groups in the region.

Failaq a-Rahman has been preoccupied with internal problems, to the point where there have been assassination attempts against its leadership.