Syria rebel group will survive leader’s death

Hassan Hassan writes: Zahran Alloush, the former leader of Jaish Al Islam who was killed by Russian air strikes on Friday evening near Damascus, was more widely mourned than any other opposition figure since the start of the Syrian conflict. He has also been condemned for having made sectarian statements alluding to the extermination of Shia in Syria.

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.”

Alloush was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, rebel leader to unequivocally and consistently combat ISIL. Unlike other forces that reluctantly or intermittently fought ISIL, Jaish Al Islam can be credited for single-handedly preventing ISIL from establishing a foothold for itself in the areas it controlled near Damascus. If ISIL is a minor player at the outskirts of Damascus, it is because of Jaish Al Islam. [Continue reading…]

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