By Aron Lund for Syria in Crisis*
Rebel sources report that a missile hit a gathering of Islam Army leaders in the Eastern Ghouta region Friday, killing several of them, including Mohammed Zahran Alloush. Some reports also say that an allied rebel faction, Feilaq al-Rahman, had much of its leadership wiped out, and that the strike was carried out by Russia. (The Syrian government claims that its own airforce was behind the attack.)
This is big news and it has the potential to shift the balance of power in the Ghouta, a region of suburbs and agricultural towns into that rings the Syrian capital. It could also impact the Syrian peace process—such as it is—that is slated to begin this January.
First of All, Is It True?
Seems like it. Pro-opposition media is awash with stories about Zahran Alloush’s death and there have been no signs of life, no denials, and no comments from his associates. Major rebel leaders and allies of Zahran Alloush and the Islam Army, including leaders of such major factions like the Mujahedin Army and Ahrar al-Sham, have posted their personal condoleances on social media. The Islam Army’s own media channels are still posting reports on military actions, but they have so far distributed nothing on the alleged attack. The fact that several top-ranking Islam Army figures have been silent since earlier today could mean that some of them, too, may have been killed or wounded in the strike.
About half an hour ago, at 21.40 Syrian time, the online news agency Sada al-Tawhid, which is aligned with the Islam Army, stated on Twitter that Zahran Alloush is dead and has been succeeded by Sheikh Abu Humam Bouidani. In other words, it would seem that Zahran Alloush is in fact dead.
Who Was Zahran Alloush?
Mohammed Zahran Alloush (1971-2015), also known as Abu Abdullah, was a salafi activist from Douma, a town east of Damascus in the Ghouta region. His father, Abdullah Alloush, is a salafi theologian resident in Saudi Arabia.
Alloush was arrested several times before the uprising for his religious and political activism and sent to the ”Islamist wing” of the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus. There, he formed close connections to many other Syrian Islamists, including people who now run large rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham. He was released from jail in June 2011 and quickly joined the armed uprising, eventually emerging as the strongman of his home region in the Eastern Ghouta and one of the most powerful rebel leaders in all of Syria.
He was also one of the most controversial ones. His supporters were taken in by his forceful personality and his personal bravery, as a commander who lived with his men in the warzone and visited the frontline. They admired his knack for organization and politics and credited him with the semi-stability that reigned inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave—a bombed out and starved suburban region that resembles nothing so much as a giant version of the Gaza Strip in Palestine. The Ghouta has been under constant pressure since the marginalized Sunni suburbs of Damascus, where hatred against Bashar al-Assad and his government ran strong, began to throw out the police and security services in 2011 and 2012. Since then, the region has been under siege and functioned as a world of its own. Holding the frontline in Damascus, where Assad has concentrated so much of his army, was no small feat and it was much thanks to Alloush’s men. Coordinating the rebels there and limiting their infighting was no less of an achievement, especially considering the all-out chaos that reigned in other areas of Syria, where conditions were much better. For many supporters of the opposition, defending and stabilizing the Eastern Ghouta despite unceasing war and artillery bombardment, including with nerve gas, was enough to make Zahran Alloush a hero of the Syrian revolution.
But the methods that Alloush used to bring stability to the Eastern Ghouta were not pretty. He has been accused of stuffing the local administration with cronies and family members to assure that no one could threaten his grip on power, of monopolizing access to the outside world through a system of tunnels, of selling aid and food at inflated prices, and of suppressing dissent with brutal means, including torture and assassination. To his rivals, he was no hero, but power-hungry opportunist or worse: a warlord, a dictator-in-the-making, hell-bent on seizing the presidential palace for himself. Some even acidly compared his methods of governance to those of Bashar al-Assad.
One aspect of this intolerance for dissent was a ferocious manhunt for supporters of the extremist Islamic State. It was long warily tolerated, the way the Islam Army still works with the Nusra Front despite latent tension between the groups. But when the Islamic State began to seriously challenge the system Alloush had constructed in the Eastern Ghouta, in 2014, all hell broke lose. Zahran Alloush’s men drove the Islamic State out of several neighborhoods, in a violent crackdown that made Syrian human rights activists and Alloush’s other Islamist rivals go pale with fright. The purge was mostly successful and it won discrete international applause, though it seems to have been a turf war just as much as it was an ideological conflict and a political conflict.
Non-extremists were also in danger. The 2013 kidnapping of four well-known secular human rights activists in Douma, an area under strong Islam Army influence, was blamed on Zahran Alloush by their families, who noted that men under his command had previously threatened the activists. Alloush denied responsibility, albeit rather unconvincingly, and he seemed genuinely perplexed that so much attention could be attached to the fate of four individuals, when people were being killed in the Ghouta by their thousands every year. But the affair made him a bête noire of much of the secular opposition, with its powerful networks abroad, and made Western governments shy away from direct dealings with his group even as it sought to moderate its politics and connect to the UN-backed political process.
While Alloush was an unabashedly sectarian Islamist, inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi establishment, he was also pragmatic enough to maneuver his way through Syrian rebel politics and its shifting alliances. In the past, he threatened non-Sunni Muslim religious groups, referring to Alawites and Shia Muslims as ”filth” that would be cleansed from Syria. He condemned democracy and pronounced himself in favor of a Sunni Islamic theocracy, where sharia law would be applied in the fullest. But in the past year, perhaps under pressure from his foreign supporters, Alloush began to try to polish his image and gain acceptance in the West. His last interview, with a female Christian Syrian reporter working for the U.S. online journal The Daily Beast, was a good example of this. Alloush folded back his fangs and tried to come off as a constructive, responsible centrist, an anti-terrorist ally, and an all-around gentleman. You know, the kind you’d like to see in a coalition government.
What Is the Islam Army?
When Alloush was released from jail in summer 2011, he contacted friends and family in Douma to create an armed rebel faction in Douma, which he dubbed the Islam Brigade (Katibat al-Islam). The group later grew and added more men and more powerful weapons, rebranding itself as the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam). It shot to fame or infamy—depending on which side of the conflict you’re on—in July 2012, when it issued a statement claiming responsibility for killing several top commanders in Assad’s army and intelligence services. The incident, reportedly a bombing of the National Security Office in Damascus, has never been fully explained. To me, it seems likely that foreign intelligence services were involved, perhaps allowing the Islam Brigade to claim credit to boost the group’s credentials. (But this is speculation!)
Whatever happened, the Islam Brigade quickly grew into one of the most powerful factions of the Eastern Ghouta, which gradually freed itself of government control. After initially being one among several groups, the Islam Brigade started elbowing its way to the top, striking deals with other factions or muscling them out of its way, as the situation required. It appears that generous foreign support, reportedly from Saudi Arabia, contributed to the rise of the Islam Brigade. In September 2013, the group renamed itself the Islam Army (Jaish al-Islam). Holdout groups continued to try to challenge Alloush’s growing dominance in the Eastern Ghouta enclave over the following months. Most were eventually forced to negotiate for their share of power in a system thoroughly dominated by Alloush.
In August 2014, the Islam Army spearheaded the creation of the Unified Command in the Eastern Ghouta, which also included the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Feilaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and other groups. Alloush was appointed its leader. However, other rebels guarded their influence and it was not a mere puppet body. For example, control of the Sharia court system in the Eastern Ghouta in fact fell to Khaled Tafour, an Ajnad al-Sham ally, rather than to Samir Kaakeh, who ran religious affairs in the Islam Army. (At the time of writing, it remains uncertain whether Kaakeh survived today’s airstrike.) Conflicts continued to occur, with Ajnad al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham occasionally at odds with the Islam Army, sometimes trading harsh accusations with Alloush. Some factions remained outside the scope of the alliance entirely—most notably the jihadis of the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda) and the Islamic State.
According to some reports, leaders of Feilaq al-Rahman were also present at the meeting targeted today and killed in the strike, and the Syrian state press has also said local Ahrar al-Sham leaders were among those killed.
What Happens to the Group Now?
The death of Zahran Alloush does not necessarily mean that the Islam Army will fall apart. Another strong leader could emerge, perhaps backed by foreign supporters like Saudi Arabia, or by other rebels in the area, all of whom are presumably anxious to preserve basic stability in the Eastern Ghouta at a difficult moment.
Some rebel factions in Syria collapse quickly when a central leader or founder is lost. Others fade away gradually. For example, the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo was weakened and split after the death of Abdulqader Saleh in November 2013, and it has now folded into another faction—but it took a while. And Ahrar al-Sham somehow survived the killing of nearly all its leaders in September 2014, relying on strong institutions and foreign support.
But in the case of the Islam Army, it has virtually been synonymous with Zahran Alloush throughout its existence, going back to the days when it was known as the Islam Battalion. Many of the most prominent leaders and representatives of the Islam Army were close friends or relatives of Zahran Alloush himself, such as Mohammed Alloush, who served as the group’s lead negotiator and political chief; he is a cousin of the Islam Army leader. If Zahran Alloush has now been killed, possibly alongside other top leaders, it could amount to a decapitation strike.
Add to that the fact that the Islam Army’s dominance has created so much resentment among other factions over the years, and the situation seems very unstable. It looks likely that the Eastern Ghouta is in for major change in the coming months.
How Does It Affect the Syrian Peace Process?
A Syrian peace process was recently launched in Vienna by the International Syria Support Group, a coalition including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other governments. In early December, a meeting in Riyadh created an opposition body to participate in negotiations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. According to the United Nations, which will convene the talks, they are currently planned for Geneva in late January 2016.
Though Zahran Alloush couldn’t attend in person, the Islam Army was the most powerful and the most hardline faction to sign on to the Riyadh talks (after Ahrar al-Sham backed out), despite fierce opposition from al-Qaeda aligned jihadi groups. If the Islam Army has trouble getting its house in order after Zahran Alloush’s death, or is caught up in rivalries with factions seeking to increase their share in the Eastern Ghouta’s war economy, or is weakened, this could have a negative effect on the opposition’s ability to conduct talks in Geneva.
On the other hand, the peace process has plenty of other problems to stumble over—whether or not the Islam Army is on board just adds to a long list of reasons it looks likely to fail.
What Happens in Damascus?
A lot of things are happening in Damascus. Less than two weeks ago, the Syrian Arab Army and its Shia Islamist allies attacked and retook the Marj al-Sultan air base in the southern part of the Eastern Ghouta, threatening the enclave.
Also, just before the news about the airstrike that killed Zahran Alloush, it was revealed that a UN-brokered arrangement will evacuate insurgents from several neighborhoods in southern Damascus, including the Yarmouk refugee camp. These areas have been mercilessly starved by the government over the past few years, and bombed, and bitterly contested both between Palestinian factions, the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel factions, and the rival Islamic State. Now, some 4000 Sunni fighters will be escorted to their respective strongholds in northern Syria and the neighborhoods will revert to some form of government control under a ceasefire arrangement. If the deal is followed through, this marks a major advance for Bashar al-Assad’s government.
With so much up in the air, and rebels threatened on multiple fronts, Zahran Alloush’s death is important. If it leads to instability and infighting among the rebels, or weakens command and control in the Ghouta, we could start to see a shift in the balance of power in the Syrian capital over the coming months.
*Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis