On the Death of Zahran Alloush

Published: December 25, 2015

Zahran Alloush, the well-known leader of a prominent rebel group Jaysh al-Islam (JAI), was killed today along with several others in an airstrike in the Damascus countryside. The airstrike was believed to be Russian, although the Syrian government has also claimed it.

A rebel leader who was known for his fiery speeches and his camo fatigues, Alloush was – much to the delight of the internet – once spotted with a pink Hello Kitty notebook while giving a speech to his supporters. This is perhaps a fitting image of contradiction for this divisive figure.

Jaysh al-Islam, a Saudi-supported rebel group estimated at 20,000 fighters, is one of the most effective forces against Assad’s forces and is the strongest rebel group in the Damascus area. JAI does not have foreign fighters, is an enemy of ISIS, and has had tension with the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Though asserting primary control in Douma and several other Eastern Ghouta communities, JAI has not been accused of persecuting minorities, and has allowed a local council and other civilian-led bodies to maintain primary civil control.

At the same time, Alloush was among the Salafi-jihadists released from prison by the Assad regime in the “amnesties” in mid-2011, which many believe were actually a strategy to destroy the Syrian revolution’s moderate and democratic nature, turning it into a battle against extremists thereby legitimizing the brutal Syrian military response and ensuring Assad’s continued rule.

Over the years, Alloush has increasingly behaved like a warlord. Last month, rare protests broke out in Douma against Jaysh al-Islam, by angry civilians who accuse the group of hoarding food and supplies while civilians go hungry in the long-besieged city. JAI is also suspected in the attempted assassination of 15 members of the Ghouta Unified Judicial Council who sided with civilians and publicly demanded that the “monopolists” release food to the market at reasonable prices. Alloush’s forces have been suspected in the disappearance in human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and her colleagues – prominent Douma-based human rights activists who ran the VDC-Sy.

In one notorious incident last month, JAI placed captured Syrian soldiers and their families in 100 cages around Douma, claiming that it was using them as to deter ongoing regime attacks on civilian areas like markets and hospitals. The publicity stunt drew wide criticism both inside and outside of Eastern Ghouta for the use of civilians as human shields.

In Zahran Alloush’s speeches to supporters he has been recorded spouting sectarian rhetoric, but in interviews with Western and Arab media outlets has also presented a more moderate face. Earlier this month, Alloush told The Daily Beast: “We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represent the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims… The Syrian revolution core was the freedom and equality of all Syrians regardless to their religion.” These different messaging campaigns indicate that he was at root a politician, saying what he needs to say to keep various constituents happy.

Zahran Alloush’s death comes as Assad and his allies on the ground (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and affiliated militias) make intense efforts to gain territory and eliminate problematic opponents to put them in a stronger negotiating position for UN-mediated peace talks, which are likely to begin in January. These efforts include nearly unprecedented attacks on parts of Eastern Ghouta, a flurry of assaults around Aleppo, hurried ceasefire arrangements in the long-besieged Homs suburb of al-Wa’er, a chemical weapons attack on besieged Moadamiya, and an agreement for ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra to be evacuated from neighborhoods of southern Damascus.

While his passing will make waves in the opposition, it is unlikely to have an impact on the upcoming international peace talks, and possibly not even the situation on the ground. Just hours after Alloush’s death, Jaysh al-Islam named one of his deputies, Issam Bouwaidani (“Abu Hammam”), as his successor to take over leadership of the organization.