Preface: Following the outbreak of recent clashes in Eastern Ghouta, Damascus countryside, on 28 April 2017, between Syrian armed opposition factions. Particularly between the Army of Islam/ Jaish al-Islam, on the one hand and Failaq al-Rahman/ al-Rahman Corpse, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS on the other hand; the frequency of arbitrary arrests and assaults began to escalate against a number of medical personnel on the factions-operated checkpoints scattered across Eastern Ghouta. In parallel, for the very reasons of the fighting, the movement of the population in general-and medical personnel in particular-is more difficult than ever between cities and towns of Eastern Ghouta.
Background on the Work of the Unified Medical Office in Eastern Ghouta
Following the takeover of the entire Eastern Ghouta towns and cities in 2013 by the armed Syrian opposition factions, the Unified Medical Office was established in Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus countryside. The Board of Directors included a number of doctors with experience and competence, with many offices generated in most Eastern Ghouta cities and towns, and a number of physicians have supervised its management as the highest medical institution to conduct the daily medical work in Eastern Ghouta.
However, following the outbreak of recent confrontations between a number of Syrian opposition factions and the block of the road between "Duma" and "the Middle Sector", movement of the medical teams among these sectors became very restricted. Let alone, the absence of the mechanism of work or a minimum understanding between the conflicting factions with regard to medical situations. As a result, members of the Medical Office decided to press the elements from those factions to give them written orders allowing doctors and ambulances to pass without obstruction or assault while permitting inspection. So, the Unified Medical Office could get those approvals written, signed and sealed by all major factions in Eastern Ghouta, namely, the Army of Islam, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS and Failaq al-Rahman, Syrians for truth and justice/STJ reported.
However, on Saturday, 13 May 2017, elements of a checkpoint, operated by Failaq al-Rahman, arrested and beat a number of doctors from the Unified Medical Office in Eastern Ghouta. The checkpoint lies on the entrance of Madyara that divides between the "Middle Sector", which is controlled by Failaq al-Rahman and the HTS, and "Duma" which is controlled by the Islamic Army.
Details of the Incident of Arrest, Assault, and Eyewitness Testimonies
STJ got several testimonies that described what happened, and reserved to mention the real personal information of the witnesses interviewed as desired by the witnesses themselves in order to preserve their personal security,
A reliable source reported to STJ that the attack on some doctors was on Saturday, 13 May 2017, by members of Failaq al-Rahman, the source said:
“There was truly a written approval for the Unified Medical Office by Failaq al-Rahman to cross its checkpoints that divide between Duma and the Middle Sector. At 2:00 pm on the same day, a group of three doctors in an ambulance drove to the headquarters of the Medical Office in Saqba, located in the Middle Sector controlled by Failaq al-Rahman, in order to conduct the Office's backlog since the date of the recent renewed confrontations of 28 April 2017.
As doctors finished the meeting at the headquarters of the Unified Medical Office in Saqba, at approximately 4.30 pm, all the doctors intended to return to Duma, which is controlled by the Army of Islam. They got on an ambulance, and on the way back, a Failaq al-Rahman-operated checkpoint, which is located on the exit of Madyara, Damascus countryside, stopped the medical personnel and attacked them.”
The same source told STJ that there were about 20 elements in the checkpoint, including the officer responsible for the checkpoint, who began shouting at the medical staff, asking them to return from where they came from. After the medical staff told the elements that they have a written consent to pass by Failaq al-Rahman, the elements of the latter brigade insisted that the medical personnel must come up with a written paper signed by the commander of Failaq al-Rahman personally, Abdul Nasr Shmeir, otherwise they will not be allowed to pass.
As the debate intensified, the medical staff asked the person in charge of the checkpoint to contact Abdul Nasr Shmeir, since he knew about the approval, but he refused. Then, the officer ordered to arrest one of the doctors, and when the doctor refused to obey the order, the Officer started firing between the doctor’s feet, in addition, the other elements fired into the air as well as among the doctors ' feet. A number of elements headed to the doctor who refused to obey their orders and beat him severely, other elements went towards the driver after he got out of the car and assaulted him as well.
The whole group was detained in the basement of a building near the Failaq al-Rahman checkpoint, the eyewitness said.
Another source told STJ that some members of the medical personnel from the Madyara medical facility that is near the checkpoint watched the incident. Soon, they warned the other doctors who were still in the Medical Office in Saqba. Doctors in turn headed to the checkpoint and told every medical member to come to the checkpoint. At the time when they reached there, the doctors along with the driver were released.
Shooting Gunfire Two Hours Later from the Same Checkpoints
In a related context, STJ reporter was able to obtain information that some of the medical staff and civilians who came for solidarity with the doctors whom were arrested and assaulted in Madyara checkpoint were also shot at. A witness, who refused to disclose his identity in view of the security risks that he could likely be exposed to, said in his testimony:
“On Saturday, 13 May 2017, we, the medical staff in Duma, were informed of what a doctor has been exposed to with his two colleagues by the elements of Failaq al-Rahman checkpoint. And appreciating the efforts of those doctors, especially the doctor who has been beaten and insulted, we wanted to make a humanitarian gesture, so we decided to go pick him up from where he took refuge in Hamoryah after his release by the elements of the checkpoint. Knowing the area is under the control of Failaq al-Rahman. We drove in two ambulances and crossed Mesraba, adjacent to Madyara; we passed the Army of Islam-operated checkpoint without problems. At about 6:30pm, we arrived at Failaq al-Rahman checkpoint located on the entrance of Madyara, the same checkpoint where they arrested and beat the doctors. There, we saw some activists and jurists who came for solidarity as well; we got out of the cars, and went to the sand berms erected by the elements of the checkpoint. Suddenly and without any warning, elements of the checkpoint started to fire in the air intensively. We spread out in separate places until the shooting stopped, then we went back to the cars. We told the elements loudly that we are "medical teams", although it was clear from our medical clothing and ambulances with the Red Crescent symbol painted on, which is the logo of medical teams in Eastern Ghouta. One of the elements walked towards us, “we thought he would apologize”, according to the witness expression, but he surprised us when he said; "It is better you go out of here than enforcing us doing something worse". We tried to make it clear with all the courtship that we are a medical staff and that we want to accompany the doctor who was beaten and insulted by their checkpoint, nevertheless, he answered angrily that he knows why we came, and insisted on expelling us and saying bad words. After that, we saw that the elements behind him equipped their rifles and shouted at us to leave, so, we were forced to leave so that the situation would not worsen”.
Satellite image illustrates the location of the checkpoint operated by Failaq al-Rahman at the entrance of Madyara in Damascus countryside, where the elements assaulted and beat the doctors of the Unified Medical Office in Eastern Ghouta.
The Unified Medical Office in Eastern Ghouta issued a statement on 15 May 2017, about the medical efforts to talk to the military factions in order to put mechanisms to stop attacks against medical personnel. The statement referred to repeated attacks by the Army of Islam, specifically in Beit Sawa and al-Ash'ari.
Arrest of Nine Persons from the Medical Staff of Sham Ambulance System
On Monday morning, May 15, 2017, nine members of the Sham Ambulance System were arrested on one of the checkpoints affiliated to the military factions stationed in the Middle Sector, which is controlled by Failaq al- Rahman alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS. A well-informed source from Sham Ambulance System, who refused to disclose his identity for security purposes, confirmed to STJ the following:
"After the routine morning shift in both sectors of Eastern Ghouta, the crew travelled by car to the Middle Sector at 8:00 am, about an hour later, the driver contacted the Director of the Ambulance System and said that he was halted by elements of Failaq al-Rahman at Ibn Taymiyah checkpoint on the way to Hamoryah. They allowed him to make a single phone call with us via a wireless set in which he confirmed that elements of the checkpoint took them towards Hamoryah town, and then we lost contact with them altogether."
In his testimony to the STJ, the source asserted that it was not the first time they obstruct the work of Sham Ambulance System. As on May 10, 2017, one the Ambulance System members were subjected to a repeated shooting from checkpoints operated by Failaq al-Rahman in the Middle Sector located in Eastern Ghouta. At that time, elements of the checkpoints fired guns at the staff, forcing them to kneel on the ground before releasing them without any justification or a clear cause, according to the witness.
A satellite image shows the location of Ibn Taymiyah checkpoint affiliated to Failaq al-Rahman and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on the Hamoryah road. This checkpoint arrested nine members of the Sham Ambulance System on May 15, 2017.
Image shows the arrested medics on May15, 2017, at Ibn Taymiyah checkpoint in the Middle Sector in Eastern Ghouta. Activists posted this photo on Facebook on May 16 2017, in solidarity with the detainees.
On May 17, 2017, the Sham Ambulance System issued a statement on its own Facebook account , announcing the arrest of nine members of its emergency crew. However, it merely stated that a checkpoint operated by a military faction in the Middle Sector, without specifying the faction, committed the arrest.
STJ reporter documented the emergency crewmembers’ identities who were arrested on May 15, 2017:
Mohammed Smoud – the gathering supervisor
Omran Sobhiya- a paramedic.
Ismail Shaghoury- a paramedic.
Mazen Badran- a paramedic.
Mohammed al-Homsi- a paramedic.
Akram as-Sayied Mahmoud- a driver
Saleh al-Assali- a driver.
Yasser Kala- a driver.
Mahmoud ad-Dali- a driver.
On Wednesday evening, May 17, 2017, the nine detainees were released two days after their arrest, amid the absence of any solutions that may end the violations ongoing against civilians by the warring factions and the Syrian regular army, as well.
On the other side, the sources reported to STJ that HTS, the supervisor of the checkpoint, along with Failaq al-Rahman members arrested the emergency crew at Ibn Taymiyah checkpoint on May 15, 2017. After the recent clashes renewed between the opposing factions in Eastern Ghouta on April 28, 2017, HTS controlled the checkpoint, together with elements of Failaq al-Rahman. The latter did not publish a statement confirming nor denying the arrest of the medical staff of the Sham Ambulance System.
Exchange of Accusations Between Syrian Opposition Factions in Eastern Ghouta
It is worth mentioning that the recent arrest of the Sham Ambulance System personnel coincided with Failaq al-Rahman accusing the Army of Islam of using ambulances in its attack on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS sites in al-Ash’ari and Hamoryah in the morning on May15, 2017. According to Waiel Olwan, the spokesperson of Failaq al- Rahman, who posted a tweet on his own account, affirming its commitment to neutralizing the medical facilities, personnel and hospitals, as well as prevent using them for any military purposes. In addition, he condemned the recent attacks against medical personnel in East Ghouta. However, the Army of Islam denied these accusations in a statement posted on its official website.
Image shows the tweet posted by Waiel Olwan, the spokesperson of Failaq al-Rahman, on May15, 2017. He accused the Army of Islam of using ambulances in the attack on al-Ash’ari and Hamoryah
Photo credit: Special tweeter account of Waiel Olwan, the official spokesperson of Failaq al-Rahman.
The Army of Islam, In turn, released a statement on its official website denying the accusations of Failaq al-Rahman that alleged using ambulances during the military attacks, as well as condemning the recent attacks on the medical personnel throughout Eastern Ghouta. Photo credit: the Army of Islam Official website, date of release: May 15, 2017.
 Their identities are withheld, as requested by the witnesses, for security purposes.
 The Syrian government before 2011 used this administrative division, and several objects also used after 2011, such as the Syrian opposition local councils and the Syrian Interim Government. "Duma" comprises of (al-Rihan, al-Shifuniyah, Duma and Mesraba) in the northern and northeastern part of Eastern Ghouta, which is controlled by the Army of Islam. While the "Middle Sector" comprises the towns and cities of (Madyara, Erbin, Hamoryah, Saqba, Kafr Batna, Ein Tarma, Hazeh, Jisreen and Beit Sawa), which are located in the center of Eastern Ghouta. HTS and Failaq al-Rahman control this sector.
 Because of the deteriorated medical situation in Eastern Ghouta, Sham Ambulance System aimed to be a part of the solution to rescue thousands of civilians who are targeted every day, and to be an integrated medical system to save the patients and the injured from under the rubble. The System transported since its launch in 2015 until March 2017 about 58,280 people, including 10,374 children, and 24,262 women, approximately 4,000 response per month, and by using 57 ambulances distributed in four Syrian provinces, Lattakia, Aleppo, Idlib and Eastern Ghouta. One hundred and forty-four paramedics handled it, according to the Ambulance System itself.