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Tahrir al-Sham clashes with Syrian opposition outside Damascus

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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Faylaq al-Rahman fighters, pictured here in Eastern Ghouta of rural Damascus, have been clashing with Tahrir al-Sham elements since Sunday (September 17th) to keep them out of the area. [Photo courtesy of Mohammed al-Beik]

Heavy fighting broke out Sunday (September 17th) between armed groups in Kafr Batna, a town in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, killing and wounding a number of civilians, an activist told Diyaruna.

Residents are concerned that these battles, instigated by Tahrir al-Sham -- an extremist alliance dominated by the former al-Nusra Front (ANF) -- against opposition faction Faylaq al-Rahman, might escalate the tension in the region and lead to the collapse of the truce with regime forces.

Tahrir al-Sham elements seized a number of houses on the outskirts of the town early Sunday, said activist Mohammed al-Beik of the Eastern Ghouta co-ordination committee.

They wanted to turn those houses into headquarters for a new faction affiliated with Tahrir al-Sham, known as Rabitat Ahl al-Marj wal Qitaa al-Janoubi (League of the People of the Meadow and Southern Sector), he told Diyaruna.

"Residents tried to prevent the militants from seizing the houses," he said, leading to gunfire that wounded several residents.

Faylaq al-Rahman then intervened and clashed with Tahrir al-Sham, he said, noting that the clashes spread and continued till the morning hours.

A deal was struck between the two sides that called for Tahrir al-Sham's elements to withdraw from the area to calm the tension.

"However, the group violated the agreement and the clashes picked up in the morning with the group's snipers shooting at civilian homes and Faylaq al-Rahman headquarters," al-Beik said.

Fighting for survival

As of Sunday evening, four civilians were killed and 10 others wounded by Tahrir al-Sham elements, who also killed two Faylaq al-Rahman fighters.

Three Tahrir al-Sham elements were also killed in the fighting and a number of others wounded, with a number of elements captured on both sides.

"Tahrir al-Sham is trying to remain in the region in one way or another amid talk of upcoming strikes against it to end its presence in the area," he said.

"The group tried to seize residents' houses to turn them into headquarters for a new faction comprising mainly its own fighters, in an attempt to give the impression that its militants have left the area in order to evade a potential strike," al-Beik said.

"The region’s residents are concerned that these clashes, which are being instigated by Tahrir al-Sham, might lead to the collapse of the truce" with the Syrian regime, he said.

Years of siege and clashes ended with the announcement of the truce and inclusion of Kafr Batna in the de-escalation zones.

De-escalation in southern Syria is part of a broader plan to create four "de-escalation zones" in opposition-held parts of the country.

Russia and Iran, main allies of the Syrian government, and opposition-backer Turkey agreed in May to create the four zones in a deal aimed at bringing about a lasting truce.

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