by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
The Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) represents one of the most powerful factions in the Syrian opposition and the most powerful in the Damascene countryside. When comparing Jaish al-Islam and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) many similarities between the two are striking. As the Syrian paramilitary comes to resemble the Palestinian terrorist organization, both defending their besieged strongholds against stronger enemies, Jaish al-Islam may try to mimic Hamas further.
Though Jaish al-Islam represents the strongest rebels in the countryside of the Syrian capital, it, like Hamas, much share territory with rivals. Sometimes, it has solved potential problems by absorbing similar, smaller paramilitaries. Elsewhere, Jaish al-Islam has resorted to attacking potential enemies among the Syrian opposition. “Jaish al-Islam recently launched a campaign of arrests against its rival faction — Jaish al-Umma,” reported Syria Deeply March 22. “This led to the execution of the group’s leader Abu Ali Khayba and the imprisonment of high-ranking official Abu Subhi Taha”. Hamas has often approached its rivals in the Gaza Strip with more benevolence, cooperating with Islamist factions such as the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and secularist factions such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. However, the terrorist organization little questioned expelling Fatah, Hamas’ greatest competitor, during the Battle of Gaza (for more see also Austin Michael Bodetti, “Hamas Is Hardline but Palestinian Islamic Jihad Is Even More Extreme“, offiziere.ch, 04.04.2016). Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have balanced cooperation with violence in overpowering and subduing their revolutionary rivals. Maintaining hegemony in their insurgencies, they are the Syrian government’s and Israel’s preeminent enemies.Despite Hamas’ membership in complex, contradictory coalitions with not only Iran and Syria but also Qatar and Turkey, Israel has managed to outgun the terrorist organization and all other Palestinian factions for decades. Jaish al-Islam faces a similar problem, for, as long as Iran and Russia continue to support the Syrian government with firepower and manpower, the paramilitary will need to use asymmetric, guerilla warfare. The Syrian government has besieged and encircled Jaish al-Islam’s territory for years, so the rebels have responded by tunneling below the Syrian Army’s frontlines. “Jaish al-Islam also operates several underground smuggling tunnels in the area,” notes the OSINT Blog. “These tunnels reduce the effectiveness of the near total government siege on Jobar. Other tunnel networks allow the transfer of supplies into [Eeast] Ghouta and allow Jaish al-Islam’s leadership to leave and enter the [Eeast] Ghouta pocket at will. […] The network of tunnels crisscrossing under [Eeast] Ghouta makes it extremely hard for the Syrian government to totally blockade areas they are besieging.” In Aleppo and Idlib Governorates, rebels have used tunnels for less-obvious objectives, such as exploding Syrian soldiers’ military bases beneath them. Tunnel warfare remains an important component of Hamas’ arsenal too. Palestinian fighters have used tunnels to ambush Israelis, hide rockets, and smuggle weapons. Earlier this month, Israeli soldiers discovered another of Hamas’ tunnels despite two years without incidents. Because the Syrian government and Israel exercise air supremacy, Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have found creative methods of avoiding enemy warplanes. Surprisingly the rebels outside Damascus have yet to bomb the Syrian government like their northern allies, given that Iran and Russia continue to arm the Syrian government well beyond the support that the Syrian opposition receives from regional powers. Targeted killings have forced Jaish al-Islam and Hamas to heighten their adaptability and durability. Last year, an airstrike from Russia or Syria killed Zahran Alloush, Jaish al-Islam’s leader. His followers replaced him soon enough. Since then, Jaish al-Islam has sustained its preeminence among the Syrian opposition in general. The Syrian opposition’s leading negotiator to Geneva III is Muhammad Alloush, an important politician in Jaish al-Islam. The paramilitary has also counterattacked Kurdish and Syrian soldiers as far as Aleppo after accusing them of violating the ceasefire. The consequences of Zahran Alloush’s killing have been minimal at worst. Hamas, meanwhile, remains as strong as ever even though Israel has assassinated dozens of its leaders. It has coordinated with Egypt to patrol its territory bordering the Sinai Peninsula, showing that its strength has only increased since the 2014 conflict with Israel. “This emphasizes the Palestinian stand to tighten security on the border and nothing that harms Egypt will come out of Gaza,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.. Jaish al-Islam and Hamas have proved their durability in confronting the military superiority of the Syrian government and Israel.
Where the Syrian Civil War and the conflicts in Israel and Palestine overlap, comparing Jaish al-Islam and Hamas becomes difficult. Once, Hamas worked with Iran, one of the Syrian opposition’s enemies. The Palestinian terrorist organization has transitioned away from Iran because of the Syrian Civil War’s inherent sectarianism, presenting opportunities to ally with other states. Some journalists have even alleged that Hamas has backed the Syrian opposition. However these relationships develop, they should intrigue analysts enough to consider a comparison between Hamas and Jaish al-Islam.
The Syrian ceasefire degrading daily, Jaish al-Islam may look to Palestine for an example of how to resist an enemy with superior airpower, firepower, and manpower. Unless the Syrian opposition receives long-requested surface-to-air missiles, the present military dilemma will require a creative yet violent response. In fact, Hamas has already learned one for Israel.