Members of Jaish al-Islam stand with their commander, Issam al-Buwaydani, in the town of Soussian in Aleppo countryside, Syria September 23, 2018. Picture taken September 23, 2018. (Reuters)
Syrian rebels forced from their towns when government forces retook eastern Ghouta near Damascus are starting over in the far north, aiming to build hundreds of homes for displaced fighters and civilians on opposition-held land near the Turkish border.
Jaish al-Islam, one of Syria's most prominent rebel groups, likens the project to a new town for people from eastern Ghouta who have been living in camps since President Bashar al-Assad recaptured their area in April.
The project near the city of al-Bab points to preparations for a long stay in northern Syria, though Jaish al-Islam insists that the people displaced from eastern Ghouta will return. It is part of a wider effort by the group to recover in the north.
Jaish al-Islam commander Issam al-Buwaydani told Reuters in an interview that his group is reorganising and rearming. Since arriving in the north, it is operating under the "National Army" umbrella - a Turkish-backed effort to unify numerous factions.
But civilian affairs are also a top priority: Buwaydani said a mall, a school, a mosque and a clinic would also be built at the construction site some 15 km (10 miles) from al-Bab.
"My entire combat group is working today in construction," said Abu Jaafar al-Khouli, 25, one of the Jaish al-Islam fighters working at the construction site.
"I took part in many battles in Ghouta against the regime and the Nusra Front. Now, I have returned to my original profession," added Khouli, a carpenter before Syria's civil war.
The site, where the goal is to build 1,400 homes, is part of an arc of territory in the northwest at that forms the last major opposition-held area in Syria.
The eastern Ghouta rebels defended their stronghold on the Damascus outskirts through years of government siege until earlier this year, when Assad took back the area in a ferocious Russian-backed offensive.
When it fell, thousands of people opted to take safe passage to the northwest rather than live under government rule, a pattern seen elsewhere that has left the northwest crammed with anti-Assad fighters and dissidents from all over Syria.
Jaish al-Islam headed to the area north of Aleppo rather than Idlib province because of long-standing hostility towards the jihadist Nusra Front, also known as Tahrir al-Sham, which has a strong presence in Idlib.
The housing project is being built on land that officially belongs to the Syrian state. Permission was granted by the opposition-run council in al-Bab, Buwaydani said.
Financing is being provided by Ghouta merchants with no foreign funding, he said.
He noted that some displaced Syrians had been living under canvass for three or four years, adding: "Our view is that living in tents has a negative impact on society."
The first phase of the project will lay foundations for homes. These will then be handed free of charge to Ghouta residents who will complete the construction with financial support from relatives outside Syria, he said.
But this does not signal any acceptance that they will not return to Ghouta. "We will go back to our towns. We will liberate them and topple the terrorist tyrant," Buwaydani said, referring to Assad.
Buwaydani says his fighters are getting financial aid from Turkey in the form of salaries.
He said the group is ready for new battles against the Syrian government or other enemies, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia which controls much of northern Syria. Turkey views the YPG as a national security threat, and its intervention in northern Syria has been driven largely by this concern.
Though Assad has crushed many areas of rebellion, Buwaydani still believes he can be toppled. "It is not impossible that Assad falls, especially given that the opposition forces are gathered today in one place," he said.
"This is a source of strength."