Syrian rebel leader killed in airstrike: Who was Zahran Alloush?

Aron Lund writes: 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 servies 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. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times adds: unlike harder-line armed groups, the Army of Islam has shown a recent interest in taking part in politics, said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian correspondent for Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper.

Mr. Hamidi, who opposes the Syrian government, said that by having successfully targeted Mr. Alloush, Mr. Assad and his Russian allies had demonstrated their desire to pursue a military solution. “This is a rejection of the Riyadh [peace] talks,” he said.

The Army of Islam controls much of the urban sprawl east of Damascus known as East Ghouta, an area that has been under blockade and bombardment by government forces for the better part of four years.

Government supporters welcomed Mr. Alloush’s death, blaming him for periodic shelling of civilian areas in Damascus. Government opponents said he had been instrumental in restraining more extremist groups from unleashing worse attacks on the city.

The opponents also argue that the Army of Islam, which sees the Islamic State as an enemy and competitor, has been crucial in keeping that group from encroaching closer to Damascus, and that weakening it could open the door to advances by the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

The Army of Islam could be particularly vulnerable because it was organized around a single charismatic individual, more so than many other rebel groups.

“Big day for supporters of ISIS and the Assad regime,” Hassan Hassan, a co-author of “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” posted on Twitter, adding that Mr. Alloush’s group was “without a doubt one of the very earliest” of Syrian insurgent movements “to systematically fight ISIS & its cells.” [Continue reading…]

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