An insurgent group fighting the Assad regime is reportedly parading civilians around in cages in an attempt to ward off airstrikes in the suburbs of Damascus. The Sham News Network has posted a video, just over four minutes long, showing captured civilians and fighters caged in the back of trucks. At least one of the cages is filled with women, who are being used as a human shield against Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”) is responsible. Jaysh al Islam has “spread cages over several areas and squares in the Eastern Ghouta putting inside them regime forces’ officers, soldiers and their families.” The eastern Al Ghouta is an area on the outskirts of Damascus where Jaysh al Islam is one of the strongest groups fighting the Assad regime.
The insurgent organization attempts to justify the move by arguing it is necessary to “lessen the air and missile bombardment carried out against the cities and towns of the Eastern Ghouta,” according to SOHR. Apparently, militias that support Assad did the same “weeks ago” in an attempt to stop “rebel and Islamist factions from targeting” two predominately Shiite “towns in the countryside of Idlib” in northern Syria.
This is not the first time Jaysh al Islam’s extremist acts have drawn attention. Earlier this year, the group released a gory video showing the mass execution of Islamic State fighters. Jaysh al Islam has long opposed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s so-called “caliphate,” but in the video it resorted to the same type of propaganda the Islamic State regularly employs. In a role reversal, Jaysh al Islam’s executioners were dressed in the same orange jumpsuits that the Islamic State makes its victims wear.
Jaysh al Islam, which is led by Zahran Alloush, is reportedly backed by Saudi Arabia. Although it isn’t one of al Qaeda’s official or unofficial groups in Syria, Jaysh al Islam has cooperated with Al Nusrah Front (an al Qaeda branch), Ahrar al Sham (which has its own ties to al Qaeda) and other al Qaeda-linked groups. For instance, Jaysh al Islam was part of the “Battle of Victory” coalition that overran the city of Jisr Al Shughur in the Idlib province in April.
However, Jaysh al Islam’s interests have conflicted with Al Nusrah and its allies at times. In October, Al Nusrah Front, Ahrar al Sham and Ajnad al Sham announced that they had established the Jund al Malahim (“Soldiers of the Epics”) joint operations room in Al Ghouta. The alliance excluded Jaysh al Islam despite the fact that Alloush’s men constitute one of the largest forces, if not the largest, in the area. Jund al Malahim’s exclusion of Jaysh al Islam indicates that Al Nusrah’s agenda doesn’t always align with Alloush’s. Indeed, the two have been odds on occasion in the past. Regardless, Jaysh al Islam’s extremism is readily apparent.
The image below is another screen shot from the video posted by the Sham News Network. In shows women in one of Jaysh al Islam’s cages: