How Sharia Jurists Influence East Ghouta Rebel Infighting
17 May 2016
Recent deadly clashes in the Damascus suburb illustrate the role local religious bodies play in the civil war.
A fatwa issued by the Shura Council of Scholars, a predominantly Sufi-Sunni local religious body, on 8 May prohibited fighting among rebel groups in East Ghouta. Weeks of clashes between armed Islamist and Salafi factions there had claimed hundreds of lives. This violence in the Damascus suburb sheds light on divides among rebel ranks, some of which supposedly share an ideology. But it also illustrates the impact local religious bodies have on the Syrian conflict.
The fighting in East Ghouta, which began in late April, was sparked by an assassination attempt on a local sharia judge. Faylaq al-Rahman, an armed Islamist faction that embraces a Muslim Brotherhood ethos, accused Jaish al-Islam, a Salafi-jihadi group, of being behind a series of assassinations of leaders and activists in the suburb. The group issued an official statement on 5 April denying this.
Besieged since 2013, East Ghouta has some 400,000 residents. According to one journalist, up to 400 people were killed in the clashes there over the past month. Aside from Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, Jaish al-Fustat – which counts the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra among its ranks – has also been involved in the hostilities.
East Ghouta may be small, but its proximity to the capital makes it a strategic area between the capital and its suburbs, where armed factions can pressure the Assad regime. The open farm land around it also makes it hard for Assad's forces to monitor. Further, the suburb has religious symbolism: it is known as the land of 'Fustat,' where some believe that Muslims are supposed to gather when the Mahdi comes at the end of days.
The suburb's religious system is a mixture of Sufi scholars and groups who adhere to a mainstream Syrian Islam and Salafi jurists, or shariyin, who embrace Wahhabism. This system directly affects the dynamics of the conflict, such as when religious figures take sides in fighting between rebel groups. On 28 April, for example, Jaish al-Islam's general sharia jurist, Abu Abdul Rahman Kaakeh, tweeted an attack on most of the Islamic factions fighting Jaish al-Islam. He accused them of being allied with al-Qaeda and asked other factions to repent. On 7 May, meanwhile, religious scholars released a statement condemning Jaish al-Islam for breaking into the area, and asked them to withdraw.
The 8 May fatwa prohibiting fighting among armed factions won grassroots support from social and civil society bodies in East Ghouta. The terms of the ruling included detainees on all sides being released, and arbitration commencing immediately. The General Commission, one of the groups that supported the fatwa, also issued a statement condemning all sides and asking all the armed factions to immediately stop the clashes.
Ripples on the ground in East Ghouta are felt as far away as Geneva, where peace talks are currently suspended. Faylaq al-Rahman, which is not included in the 'cessation of hostilities' that went into effect on 27 February, has denied allegations it is cooperating against Jaish al-Islam with Jaish al-Fustat. Distancing itself publicly from the al-Qaeda affiliate, which is not included in the ceasefire agreement or peace talks, may be a way of leaving the path open to being included in the truce, like its rival Jaish al-Islam.
What is happening in East Ghouta can be seen in most pockets of conflict around the country. It is a clash between Islamist armed groups affiliated with Salafi or Sufi religious bodies. As such, it might look like a clash between ideologies; but it is more of an armed struggle over hegemony and who gets to control certain areas of a neighbourhood within a town or city.
This is why, though armed factions across Syria fight against Assad as a primary goal, it is getting harder to generate a regional alliance between them. Amid the mess, the relatively small number of locals left in East Ghouta is trying to protest not only against Assad's regime, but also against the Islamist groups in their midst.
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