Zahran Alloush, Syrian rebel bigshot and leader of the Jaysh al Islam (“Army of Islam”) rebel faction, which is active in the Damascus neighborhoods of Douma and Eastern Ghouta and forms the backbone of the “Islamic Front” rebel coalition, is tragically* no longer among the living:
The commander of one of the most powerful Syrian insurgent groups in the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, was killed Friday in an airstrike, according to the government and its opponents. The death of the commander, Zahran Alloush, is a significant blow to the armed opposition, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a planned new round of peace talks.
Mr. Alloush led the Army of Islam, a group that had recently agreed to participate in a political process seeking to end the five-year-old conflict. The Army of Islam is regarded by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, as a sectarian, terrorist group that differs little from more extremist groups like the Islamic State.
Local opposition figures reached in Damascus said the airstrikes had been carried out by Russian warplanes, but that information was not immediately confirmed by Russian or Syrian officials.
The reason why as asterisked “tragically” up there is because, under any other set of circumstances, Zahran Alloush would be regarded by any decent human being as a vicious warlord and purveyor of sectarian violence who posed a legitimate threat to the people around him. So his death would actually be considered a good thing. But in the couple of days since his death, he’s been mourned as though he were Syria’s Nelson Mandela, except many of the people mourning him probably thought that Mandela was a dangerous extremist. Why? Well, because Alloush was that rare Syrian rebel who openly fought ISIS as well as Bashar al-Assad. It’s only a minor inconvenience that his main criticism of ISIS seems to have been that ISIS kills too many Sunnis and not enough non-Sunnis.
Here’s what we know about Zahran Alloush. First, to answer the question you should always ask when reports surface about one of these guys kicking the bucket, we know that he probably is really dead. For one thing, Jaysh al-Islam’s own media outlets are reporting it, as well as the group’s change in leadership (welcome to new emir Abu Humam al-Buwidani!), and for another thing, there have been a lot of “condolence” messages that have been sent over the past couple of days from jihadi-connected Twitter accounts. Usually that’s the kind of thing that signals that the reported death is the real deal.
We also know that Alloush was a very effective rebel leader. The ability of Jaysh al-Islam and its predecessors to hold on to parts of Damascus for most of the war without either being forced out by Assad or overrun by ISIS has been impressive. Of course, the means by which he’s held on to that territory haven’t exactly be consistent with the vision of a pluralistic and democratic future Syria:
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.
Alloush has, in the past, called for “cleansing” of Shiʿa (including Alawites) from Syria. He’s praised Osama bin Laden. He’s described Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria) as “our brothers.” He’s rejected democracy and side-stepped questions about whether he would impose an “Islamic state” upon a post-Assad Syria. Jaysh al-Islam criticizes ISIS not for slaughtering people in principle, but for slaughtering the wrong people (be warned, that video is graphic). Note that all of these links go to Jaysh al-Islam’s own YouTube videos, most of which feature Alloush speaking for himself. Nobody is divining or guessing that these are his positions; he’s amply explained himself many times over. And Jaysh al-Islam has walked the walk, participating (allegedly) in massacres of Alawites and other religious minorities, and using (definitely) “caged” Alawite prisoners as human shields against Assad’s airstrikes. These are real-deal human rights violations, in case you were wondering.
Despite all this ample evidence to the contrary, though, Alloush’s willingness to fight ISIS has apparently caused some otherwise smart people to contort themselves into pretzels to portray him as Actually a Moderate. Hassan Hassan, whose work on Syrian jihadi groups is virtually inescapable (he’s literally written the–well, co-written a–book on ISIS) has been insisting for months that Islamic Front is a serious threat to true extremist rebel groups, because while Alloush says all that outrageous extremist stuff, he doesn’t actually mean it:
Sectarian statements are unjustifiable because they stoke tensions in an already polarised landscape. Jaish Al Islam was guilty of playing a cynical game of religious one-upmanship against extremist groups, especially at the height of religious polarisation in late 2013, during the Hizbollah-led offensive inside Syria. But it is a mistake to equate the group with extremist organisations, especially since such statements by no means reflect the group’s intentions or actions.
People who met Alloush and members of his faction, including members of Syria’s religious minorities, challenged such perceived views. Bassam Malouf, a Christian dissident, for example, recalled a meeting he had with Alloush, in which the former warned against targeting Christian churches in the suburbs of Damascus where the faction operated. Alloush replied, according to Mr Malouf, referring to Christians, by saying: “You are part of us and we are part of you. We will not allow anybody to violate the sanctity of homes, churches or people. Even Alawites, they are not our enemies, they are victims of the regime.”
Mr Malouf added: “His religious discourse was meant to encourage young people living under siege to join Jaish Al Islam and pull them away from ISIL.”
I mean, maybe this is all true and Alloush has been playing 25 dimensional chess for five years, but I tend to think that the guy meant the stuff he said in those YouTube videos because, by all accounts, he’s actually lived those words. His effort to put on a nice face for a meeting with a prominent Christian dissident, or to work a particularly credulous Daily Beast interviewer a couple of weeks ago in an effort to boost his image in the West, doesn’t do much for me. Although he differed with ISIS on tactics, and cajoled his pals in Nusra about shedding their counterproductive ties with al-Qaeda, Alloush’s ideology was, save for a few feel-good statements intended for Western audiences, pretty indistinguishable from either of those groups, and an outcome that leaves Syria in the hands of a guy like him would ultimately be a big problem for the West (name one hardline Salafist regime in the Middle East that isn’t a problem for the West on some level–and, no, the Saudis most definitely don’t count), not to mention any Syrian who doesn’t toe the Sunni/Salafi line.
Herein lies the problem, though: it’s guys like Alloush who stand to inherit Syria if the US plan to turn the country over to “moderate” rebels actually manages to come to fruition. Alloush’s position was incredibly strong, so strong that after Ahrar al-Sham abandoned those rebel coalition-building talks in Riyadh earlier this month, Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam was the single best-positioned and most influential rebel group still participating in that process. Now Jaysh al-Islam may continue on as before under a different leader or it may be unable to maintain its stature, but either way the rebel landscape has been fundamentally changed and that inherently complicates negotiations. Even supposedly secular elements of the Syrian rebel universe are saying that Alloush’s death threatens the peace process, that it risks losing his fighters and is a blow to the fight against ISIS. They’re blaming Russia for targeting an effective rebel leader, and they have a point, but Russia hasn’t exactly been unclear about its intentions to target extremist rebels, and in Alloush’s case they don’t even need to stretch the definition of “extremist” to make him fit.
Guys like Alloush (RIP) and Abu Mohammad al-Julani should give us Westerners a pause when we think about imposing, or influencing, an outcome in Syria. Anything short of ISIS, maybe, is better for the Syrian people than Assad, I suppose–running up a 200K-plus body count kind of renders him the worst of all possible outcomes. But it’s the Jaysh al-Islams and Jabhat al-Nusras of the world that are best positioned to seize control if and when Assad falls, you know? And their success is very likely to precede a very serious, very violent campaign against Syria’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minorities, which will only prolong the civil war and add to its already too high cost.
If the Syrian people choose some kind of fundamentalist theocracy…well, that could still be very bad news for its minority communities, but at least then such a government would have some popular legitimacy. But there’s literally nothing in the records of an Alloush or a Julani that suggests that, if it were up to them, they’d ever leave the choice of Syria’s form of government up to the Syrian people. What’s the plan for making sure that men like this don’t just get to impose their will on Syria when all the fighting is over? I mean, if you’re going to intervene in the war, which one way or another we’re already doing, shouldn’t you have some plan for steering your intervention toward the best possible outcome? Do we have one?
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