Jaish al-Islam (Arabic: جيش الإسلام) or “Army of Islam” has a reputation for being a competent group. While the group is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, its success cannot be wholly attributed to its foreign backing (Oweis, 2013). A variety of rebel groups in Syria ranging from the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army to Ahrar al-Sham are backed by foreign powers, yet none of these groups have come close to emulating Jaish al-Islam’s (JaI) management of the local economy.
Ideologically the group adheres to Salafi Islamism, but they have shown a degree of flexibility in their outlook. Unlike al-Qaeda or ISIS, Jaish al-Islam does not seek to expand their rule to countries other than Syria. Furthermore, unlike Ahrar al-Sham, JaI has lukewarm relations with Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian Branch). For instance, in June 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra’s attempt to expand their Jaish al-Fatah coalition to East Ghouta was rejected by JaI and other allied groups (Zaman al-Wasl, 2015). A month later in July, minor clashes between JaI and al-Nusra erupted in E. Ghouta over the arrests of a Nusra member by a local court (Abo_M0hamed, 2015; Uygaraktas, 2015). These clashes eventually were resolved only after several small attacks on each other’s checkpoints had occurred (Abduhark, 2015). While JaI and al-Nusra are not actively hostile to each other per se, these events highlight their somewhat uneasy relationship. Jaish al-Islam’s distance from al-Nusra makes the group somewhat more palatable for Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support.
JaI operates in a fairly tough environment in their stronghold of E. Ghouta; they are cut off from core rebel territories in Idlib/Aleppo Governorate and Darra Governorate. They are also under a crippling Syrian government siege that restricts the flow of supplies and food into their territories. Despite this situation, Jaish al-Islam manages to remain one of the most professional rebel groups in Syria. Jaish al-Islam’s management of the economy in E. Ghouta is a major factor in their continued survival while under siege.
Ammunition, food, water, weaponry, support population and funding are all required to successfully conduct military operations. Without these key factors, JaI would be unable to operate as successfully as they do. In this write-up we will be analyzing the various factors that allow Jaish al-Islam to survive in E. Ghouta on the doorstep of the Syrian government.
SMUGGLING AND TUNNELING
Smuggling is a key factor in allowing Jaish al-Islam to survive under siege in East Ghouta. Bribery and graft within pro-government forces allows Jaish al-Islam to move goods into the East Ghouta pocket. Corrupt SAA (Syrian Arab Army) officers are known to sell supplies and weaponry to Jaish al-Islam at inflated rates. For instance, Jaish al-Islam bought two T-72 tanks from a corrupt SAA officer back in 2014 (Oryx, 2014). According to Siege Watch, in the Damascus area only Douma and Jobar are under complete siege with little to no transfer of goods and supplies from across government lines. However, the vast majority of the other sieges in E. Ghouta are not ranked as “Tier 1” sieges according to Siege Watch; this indicates that some passage of supplies from government areas into rebel areas occurs.
Jaish al-Islam also operates several underground smuggling tunnels in the area. The suburb of Jobar, for instance, is linked to E. Ghouta through a network of tunnels. These tunnels reduce the effectiveness of the near total government siege on Jobar. Other tunnel networks allow the transfer of supplies into E. Ghouta and allow Jaish al-Islam’s leadership to leave and enter the E. Ghouta pocket at will. For example, Jaish al-Islam’s former leader (now deceased) Zahran Alloush was able to travel from E. Ghouta to Istanbul, Turkey despite the Syrian government blockade. The network of tunnels crisscrossing under E. Ghouta makes it extremely hard for the Syrian government to totally blockade areas they are besieging.
Jaish al-Islam also uses tunneling as an offensive weapon to launch surprise attacks from behind enemy lines. The lead-up to the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive by Jaish al-Islam saw the construction of several infiltration tunnels. These tunnels are often large, well lit and equipped with air flow systems. Some tunnels were large enough to comfortably allow the transport of dozens of fighters.
UNCONVENTIONAL ARTILLERY AND MUNITIONS MANUFACTURING
Jaish al-Islam makes a variety of munitions for use in combat. While most rebel groups in Syria are limited to manufacturing improvised items such as IEDs or homemade grenades, Jaish al-Islam takes this a step further to manufacturing standardized munitions. However, Jaish al-Islam does manufacture a variety of non-standard munitions including the infamous “hell cannon” (for more about “hell cannons” read this this). In summary, “hell cannons” are essentially an improvised mortar of sorts firing an improvised projectile usually consisting of a propane tank packed with explosives.
Jaish al-Islam also makes and uses improvised rocket artillery called IRAMs (Improvised Rocket Assisted Munitions). This style of improvised rocket artillery was popularized by various Shia militias that used them against American forces during the insurgency phase of the Iraq War (Roggio, 2008). IRAMs are essentially an oversized improvised warhead (usually a propane tank or drum filled with explosives and shrapnel) attached to a small rocket motor. When compared to most standard rocket artillery, IRAMs are relatively short range (mostly due to their large oversized warhead). They are also notoriously inaccurate due to their unconventional shape. IRAMs have a variety of names including “lob bombs” and aerial improvised explosive device (AIED). While Jaish al-Islam IRAMs tend to be less impressive and generally weaker than the infamous “volcano rockets” used by the SAA, IRAMs are still an important armament in Jaish al-Islam’s arsenal.
IEDs (improvised explosive device) are also a common non-standard munition utilized by Jaish al-Islam. Jaish al-Islam seems to employ IEDs in ambushes; they also use IEDs to shut down Syrian government usage of roads. For instance, Jaish al-Islam has repeatedly employed IEDs to try to shut down Syrian government usage of the M5 highway between Damascus and Homs. Jaish al-Islam does not seem to manufacture IEDs on a large scale. Furthermore, Jaish al-Islam does not appear to use IEDs at frequently as ISIS or other rebel groups.
Improvised grenades are also manufactured by Jaish al-Islam. These improvised grenades are rather small and almost exclusively rely on an external fuse that must be manually lit with a lighter or match prior to usage. This style of improvised grenade is incredibly common across Syria among a variety of non-state actors ranging from small FSA groups to ISIS. The effectiveness of these improvised grenades is unclear due to the lack of standardization among grenade designs.
CONVENTIONAL ARTILLERY MANUFACTURING
While Jaish al-Islam’s IRAMs and hell cannons may be quite effective, Jaish al-Islam’s manufacturing of conventional artillery systems is what makes it stand out among the various rebel groups in Syria. Jaish al-Islam makes or modifies a variety of conventional artillery pieces that fire standard munitions. We will examine just a few of the conventional artillery pieces that have been modified or built by Jaish al-Islam.
Modification of existing artillery pieces by rebel groups in Syria is quite common. Jaish al-Islam modifies a variety of artillery systems. For instance, they have upgraded Type-63 MLRS (Multiple Lauch Rocket System) with a more durable off-road chassis as well as adding a new camouflage paint-job (Oryx Blog, 2014).
Moving on to other types of rocket artillery, Jaish al-Islam has been spotted using a locally manufactured analog of the 9K132 Grad-P. This variant of the Grad is essentially a single tube that fires a single Grad rocket (FAS, 1999). This system allows for the firing of individual grad rockets in areas where a truck mounted grad system may not be useable. Jaish al-Islam’s Grad-P analog is extremely similar to the original system in both construction and design; furthermore, like the actual Grad-P, their Grad-P analog is man-portable.
Probably one of the pinnacles of Jaish al-Islam’s artillery manufacturing was the creation of the Sahm al-Islam 3 (Arabic: سهم الإسلام) MLRS. “Sahm al-Islam” translates to “Arrow of Islam,” which is a somewhat apt name given the three 122mm rockets that system is armed with. These rockets are launched from an elevating and rotating firing platform that is mounted onto a 6×6 Ural-375D. The Ural-375D is the vehicle used in the BM-21 Grad MLRS; thus, its use as an MLRS platform in Jaish al-Islam’s Sahm al-Islam 3 system is not strange. The Sahm al-Islam 3 MLRS can also carry up to two 122mm rockets in reserve.
CONVENTIONAL MUNITIONS MANUFACTURING
Jaish al-Islam makes a variety of conventional munitions as well. Jaish al-Islam used to control significant portions of Adra industrial city giving them access to significant amounts of machinery that could have been used for the production of munitions. Furthermore, there are a significant number of factories and foundries within Douma and other urban areas within East Ghouta.
Jaish al-Islam manufactures both mortar rounds and rockets. While they make a large variety of large and small caliber mortar rounds, they seem to only make 107mm and 122mm rockets. The 107mm rocket is seemingly designed to be fired from a Type-63 style MLRS. It is uncertain how effective or accurate these rockets are, though there are multiple videos from 2013 of their 122mm “Sahm al-Islam 3” rocket being successfully fired. It is unclear if these rockets are being produced on any significant scale by Jaish al-Islam. To the best of our knowledge, 122mm “Sahm al-Islam 3” rockets have not been seen since late 2013.
Unfortunately, we do not have insight on how these rockets are manufactured as we were unable to locate any videos of Jaish al-Islam manufacturing their rockets. However, Jaish al-Islam has released a video showcasing most of their process for manufacturing mortar rounds. The following slides roughly approximate the process they use to manufacture mortar rounds.
Note that Jaish al-Islam uses sand casting to cast their mortar rounds; this is a standard process in the metal casting industry. It is likely that the group is employing workers that had experience with casting prior to the war. Several key steps of their manufacturing process are not shown; we do not know anything about the process of adding propellant, explosives, primers or fuzes to the mortar round. It is possible that they lack the capability to manufacture some or all of these components.
GENERAL SUPPLIES MANUFACTURING
Jaish al-Islam appears to make their own uniforms. While this is not particularly unusual among non-state actors (the LTTE for instance made their own camouflage uniforms), it is not common for camouflage uniforms to be manufactured on a large scale among rebel groups in Syria. While all Jaish al-Islam fighters do not wear standardized uniforms, high level leadership and special forces tend to wear them. Jaish al-Islam not only makes camouflage pants and shirts, they also make standardized boots for their soldiers.
Jaish al-Islam also appears to make their own saline solution for usage as intravenous fluid in hospitals and on the battlefield. While the group does have a fairly well developed medical corp, we were unable to find any video footage showing the actual production process for saline. The video showcasing the saline solution did show the usage of a sterilizing machine, but it is unclear if that was relevant to the production of saline solution.
ANTI-MATERIEL RIFLE AND SNIPER RIFLE MANUFACTURING
Jaish al-Islam manufactures a large variety of sniper and anti-materiel rifles. In addition to allowing the engagement of targets far outside the range of most small arms, these rifles can also easily destroy weaponry, supplies, and unarmored vehicles. The use of large caliber machine guns in a sniper role is not uncommon; the Vietnam war saw the use of the .50 Caliber Browning M2 machine gun as a sniper and the 12.7mm Soviet NSV machine gun was re-purposed as a sniper during the Soviet War in Afghanistan (Eger, 2013).
Jaish al-Islam seems to repurpose barrels from machine guns and anti-aircraft guns to make their anti-materiel rifles. These weapons seem to be effective and several videos have been released of them accurately targeting Syrian government forces. In some cases they appear to have manufactured the rifle barrel themselves, while in others they have simply reused a barrel from another weapon.
AGRICULTURE AND ANIMAL HUSBANDRY
In Syria we have seen that siege tactics are a somewhat effective strategy to weaken the operational capability of a non-state actor. Both the Syrian government and the rebels have employed siege tactics through denying the passage of food, gasoline and other supplies to enemy controlled territory. Rebel held pockets under government blockade often face starvation and food insecurity. A particularly relevant example would be the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya which is under a crippling government siege (Graham-Harrison and Shaheen, 2016). The “Mouadamiya Council,” which is in charge of running the city, has alleged that the government’s restriction of food supply to the suburb leads to much of the civilian population fleeing to government controlled areas. This also has the effect of weakening rebels who depend on the support of the civilian population to effectively operate.
E. Ghouta, however, has not experienced food insecurity or starvation to the scale seen in Mouadamiya. This is largely attributable to the rural nature of E. Ghouta and its enormous number of farms. Furthermore, Ghouta also benefits from having an enormous number of poultry farms and slaughter houses. On the other hand, urban areas under siege often can not produce sufficient food to feed its population. Therefore, Jaish al-Islam and other groups in E. Ghouta do not face the same food security pressures as rebels in besieged urban areas.
Jaish al-Islam is not your ordinary Syrian rebel group; while it may not have the large scale presence of Ahrar al-Sham or Jabhat al-Nusra, it is clearly one of the most well organized rebel groups in Syria. As far as conventional weapons and munitions manufacturing among non-state actors is concerned, Jaish al-Islam is by far the most successful at it. While it is quite clear that their heavy backing by Saudi Arabia and Turkey plays a significant role in their manufacturing capabilities, a large portion of the manufacturing equipment they use, such as forges, lathes and sterilization machines, are simply too large to have been smuggled in with the support of their foreign backers.
Jaish al-Islam’s management of the economy in East Ghouta plays a major role in the groups continued dominance among rebels in the Damascus area. Their ability to conduct massive coordinated offensives such as the 2015 Tal Kurdi Offensive is in part thanks to their ability to manufacture their own munitions. Jaish al-Islam is and will remain a major player within the Syrian Civil War for some time to come. Citations for this post are available in PDF form here.