The death of a key Syrian insurgent leader threatens to have significant consequences for the Syrian civil war and its nascent peace process. Zahran Alloush, founder and commander of Jaish Al-Islam (JAI), was killed in a targeted strike in Eastern Ghouta, the only rebel held Damascus suburb and home to the JAI movement. Zahran’s demise sparked review of his role in the Syrian conflict, drawing eulogies and castigation in large measure. He was viewed simultaneously as an heroic potential partner in peace and a sectarian militiaman and warlord.
Born in 1971, Zahran was the son of well-known Syrian Salafist cleric Sheikh Abdullah Alloush. He gained a Masters degree in Shariah Law from the Islamic University of Medina and was arrested in Damascus in 2009 for political activities. Alloush was held in the infamous Islamist wing of Sednayya prison and abruptly released three months into the Syrian uprising alongside Hassan Aboud (deceased leader of Ahrar al-Sham) and Ahmed Abu Issa (leader of Suqour al-Sham Brigade). Back in Douma he activated neighbourhood networks and contacts built in prison, quickly forming one of the first anti-Assad insurgent groups – Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam). LIA gained early credit fighting the brutal escalations of the Syrian Arab Army, especially the elite and specialised Fourth Mechanised Division’s (led by Bashar al Assad’s brother Maher), attempts to crush opposition around Damascus. The group also claimed the July 2012 bombing of Syrian National Security Headquarters that killed Assad’s defence minister, deputy defence minister and husband of Bashar’s sister, assistant to the Vice President and director of the National Security Bureau Hisham Ikhtiar, though there is little proof for LIA’s claim. LIA was renamed Jaish Al-Islam (Army of Islam) in September 2013 when the group absorbed at least fifty other insurgent factions with Zahran maintaining leadership and appointing relatives to powerful roles.
A powerful commander in an often fractious environment, Zahran occupied several positions and polarised opinion.
On multiple occasions Zahran made extremist statements, praising Osama Bin Laden and referring to him with the honorific title ‘Sheikh’, labelling Jahbat al-Nusra ‘our brothers’ and attacking democracy in calling for an Islamic state in Syria. He has made several virulently sectarian speeches and frequently referred to Shias and Alawites using derogatory terms. The worst fears of Alloush’s sectarianism have been realised outside of rhetoric in the Adra massacre in which at least eighteen Alawaite, Christian, Druze and Ishmailite civilians were shot or beheaded, though it is suspected the Al-Qaeda linked Jahbat Al-Nusra forces were responsible. It is believed that JAI forces were behind the picture circulating on social media that showed paraded Alawite civilians in cages in East Ghouta to ward off Russian airstrikes.
To many Zahran is a hero of the Syrian revolution, a view buttressed by his detention in Assad’s prisons before the revolution. In contrast to leaders of the Syrian National Council who remain safely ensconced in Turkish hotels, Zahran remained in Syria. He was lauded for the personal bravery that saw him live alongside his men in the warzone and frequently visiting the frontline. These features are made all the more impressive given the severity with which Assad has bombed, starved and besieged the Eastern Ghouta enclave since the early days of the revolution. Eastern Ghouta is a long marginalised Sunni suburb and supporters have credited Zahran’s forceful personal and organisational ability with maintaining a state of semi-stability. Its inhabitants are survivors of the infamous nerve gas attack that the United States estimates killed 1,429 people. They fear a repeat of these attacks, and the daily barrel bombings they endure, and considered Zahran’s forces the wedge that stops certain massacre. It is easy to understand how, under these extreme conditions, Zahran’s rule – in contrast to the chaos that has periodically ruled other areas – has been inspiring.
The implication of Zahran’s death will be felt widely. For the Syrian/Iranian/Russia coalition it is a tremendous intelligence and tactical successes; knowing they were able to infiltrate and gain intelligence as to Zahran’s whereabouts is a big moral boost to beleaguered ground forces. Since the early part of the revolution, Assad has pursued a strategy of polarising Syria between his rule or that of terrorists. He refused to refer to armed opposition as anything other than terrorists and has sought to strengthen jihadi forces to fit this narrative. Bashar released scores of Salafist he knew would start jihadi groups to sow seeds of chaos to prevent a unified opposition emerging. Alloush’s may lead to a fracturing of his organisation, as other groups (particularly IS elements around Ghouta) attempt to claim his territory. An increasing IS presence in Eastern Ghouta fits Assad’s strategy perfectly, allowing him to amp up the fear among the international community about extremists on the verge of the capital.
For IS, Zahran’s death represents a grand opportunity. He had proved himself to be the chief tormentor of IS from the Syrian Arab opposition. He exhibited intolerance of dissent under his rule and led a ferocious manhunt for IS members and sympathisers when IS challenged his territory. He led a campaign that drove them out of several neighbourhoods with extreme brutality. The purge won the discrete support of the international community and gave him the space to market himself as an anti-IS ally that found JAI attend the Saudi opposition talks late last year. The death of a charismatic leader exposes cracks in any organisation and Zahran had been a particular thorn in IS’s side. With their chief tormentor among the arab opposition gone, IS may relaunch attempts to infiltrate Ghouta and launch attacks against Jaish Al-Islam forces. IS strategy involves a mixture of building connections to powerful local families, often through marriage, financial payoffs for loyalty and sheer brutality. The proximity of Eastern Ghouta to the capital and the lucrative war economy that has developed make the area an attractive proposition to an IS hurt by recent loss of momentum and territory. A community shaken by the loss of its leader may find itself more vulnerable to the group than it has been before.
The most dramatic effect will be felt by the Syrian peace process. Prospects for the process have been bleak from the outset and the powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction dropped out of the talks. Jaish al-Islam was the most powerful and hardline faction to sign onto the Riyadh talks, and looked to be taking a lead in the process given its anti-IS credentials and close relationship to Saudi Arabia. Alloush’s successor, Abu Hamam al-Buwaydani, has appeared on video pledging a moderate approach, calling for unity and proclaiming that these difficulties only make JAI fiercer. However, if the group is to suffer any dissension the talks may well collapse. There is also genuine fear that regional backers, particularly the Saudi’s, will be greatly upset by the loss of their surrogate. The targeting of a leading opposition commander, who has recently signed onto a peace process, is indicative of Assad’s unwillingness to leave office as planned. There is a distinct possibility that a target of this profile would have led to Russia involvement in the raid, and given Assad’s weakness it is unlikely they wouldn’t be informed of the mission. Russia is complicit in the assassination of an opposition leader who has openly committed to peace talks with the Syrian government on the condition that Assad is transitioned from office. At the very least it makes Russia’ public pronouncements hollow, and at worst it is an example of Russia taking up Assad’s preservation strategy to reduce the conflict to Assad and jihadi’s with nobody in between.
In recent days the situation has become further complicated due to the deterioration of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the tit-for-tat battle between the two nations for regional hegemony that will likely ensue, the beleagured people of Syria, and Yemen, will continue to be the primary victims.