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Islamist Rebel Fighters Unite in Damascus Suburb

This image posted on the Twitter page of Syria's al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front shows fighters from the group in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province, Syria, April 25, 2015.
This image posted on the Twitter page of Syria's al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra Front shows fighters from the group in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib province, Syria, April 25, 2015.

Three major Islamist rebel groups have launched a joint operations center in an eastern suburb of the Syrian capital in a concerted effort to fight the Syrian government and its allied Russian forces.

The al-Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, is one of the groups that have signed the new agreement, according to a statement the groups released Thursday on social media. The other two are Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic Union of Jund al-Sham, according to their websites.

This announcement came as the Russian military continued its air campaign in support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia entered the war in Syria three weeks ago with the stated intent of destroying Islamic State militant operations. But the U.S. and rebel groups say Russian airstrikes have instead hit rebel groups and are actually meant to prop up Assad.

“It is no secret that the Muslim nation, especially in the Levant, is being brutally targeted. The Russians are officially here and the Crusaders [U.S.-led coalition] and their allies have been here already,” a joint statement by the three Islamist groups said.

The newly established command center in eastern Damascus, called Jund al-Malahem or the Soldiers of Epics, will be operating in areas that have been under the rebel control. The aim is “to interlace efforts in order to counter this ruthless campaign on Muslim lands,” the statement read.

The formation of such an alliance is not only to fight regime forces but also to launch attacks on Russian forces and the international coalition and their allies in Syria.

Seeking a foothold

The largest of the three groups, al-Nusra Front, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., has been planning to establish such a center for a while, reports say. The group is trying to strengthen its foothold in the Damascus area after losses to the regime forces elsewhere in the northwestern province of Idlib.

However, many locals are afraid the implications of this alliance will only be bad for them, because its presence could lead to fierce battles between rebel groups and pro-government forces.

A local journalist, who insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution, told VOA “this new development” would have an immediate impact on the course of the battle “with the Syrian regime forces."

“I only hope it won’t exacerbate the human crisis here, because the regime’s reaction in these kinds of situations is unpredictable,” he said.

“Al-Nusra [Front] and Ahrar al-Sham don’t care about people as much as they do about territorial gains in their fight against the regime,” he added.

Regime forces have besieged the region since June 2014. The blockade has resulted in massive shortages of food and other goods.

The Army of Islam, another extremist group that operates in eastern Damascus — also known as Eastern Ghouta — has been accused by the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham of taking advantage of the dire situation to exploit the civilian population by controlling prices and not allowing people to get out of the area.

The Syrian military has regularly conducted airstrikes there, while opposition groups such as al-Nusra Front and the Army of Islam have controlled large parts of the area.

Islamic State militants briefly took control of parts of Eastern Ghouta last year, but local armed groups and other Islamist forces in the area expelled them.