New militia battles Islamist rebels near Damascus • The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights
The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights

New militia battles Islamist rebels near Damascus

Former rebel militiamen who have switched sides and joined Syria’s regime forces are engaged in a fierce battle against Islamist insurgents near Damascus, sources said on Sunday.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, pro-regime Jaysh al-Wafaa launched its “fiercest battle yet” on Saturday night against Jaysh al-Islam fighters near the rebel bastion of Douma, east of the capital.

“The fighting is ongoing now,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP on Sunday.

Jaysh al-Wafaa, whose name in Arabic roughly translates as “The Loyalists’ Army”, was formed some three months ago, more than a year into a suffocating regime siege of the Eastern Ghouta area, which includes Douma.

The militia’s task is to confront Jaysh al-Islam, the best-armed opposition group in the Damascus area, according to the Observatory and activists in Douma.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime “is financing and arming Jaysh al-Wafaa”, Abdel Rahman said.

“Among its ranks are armed men who, after more than a year under siege, handed themselves in to the regime,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“Because of the siege, some people prefer to evacuate their children and have a chance at survival, rather than stay put and die either from hunger or because of the bombings.”

He said Jaysh al-Wafaa “provides a way for fighters to be free both from the regime siege, and from (Jaysh al-Islam chief) Zahran Alloush”, who is notorious for his abuses.

Douma, which emerged early in Syria’s conflict as an important anti-regime bastion, is now under Jaysh al-Islam’s control.

Tens of thousands trapped in the siege suffer from food and medical shortages, as well as deadly regime bombardment.

A source close to Assad’s regime and a Jaysh al-Islam spokesman both confirmed to AFP that a battle was taking place.

“Jaysh al-Wafaa was set up three months ago by people from Douma and former rebels,” the pro-government source said.

“Yesterday (Saturday) they attacked Jaysh al-Islam and killed 12 of its fighters.”

A spokesman for the Islamist group said rebels also killed an unknown number of the enemy.

The Observatory was not in a position to confirm tolls, but said loyalists were backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah fighters on the ground, as well as by regime artillery.

Syria’s war began in March 2011 as a peaceful movement demanding democratic change but later morphed into a brutal civil war, after Assad’s regime unleashed a crackdown on dissent.