By Sami Moubayed
The killing of Zahran Alloush, an Islamist rebel in the Damascus countryside, is a turning point in the battlefield around the Syrian capital.
His demise will likely create havoc in rebel ranks and might tip the balance of power in favour of the Syrian regime ahead of upcoming peace talks with the opposition in Geneva next January.
Parts of Damascus erupted with sporadic demonstrations of joy last night, as news broke out that the powerful commander had been killed by a Russian air strike. Most of the commanders of his rebel affiliate, Failak al-Rahman, were also killed.
The celebrations, which did not appear to be regime-orchestrated political marches or Christmas manifestations, were mainly in Christian parts of town that are close to Alloush’s fiefdom of Douma in Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus.
For two years now, the mere mention of Alloush’s name has sent shivers down the spine of Damascenes, as he often bombarded the city. In addition to the visible relief in the upper echelons of power in Damascus, many locals were glad to see him dead and so were a handful of secularists in the Syrian opposition. They accuse Alloush of abducting iconic human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh and four of her colleagues back in December 2013. Two years later their fate has not been disclosed, creating many enemies for Alloush even in the anti-regime camp.
Elsewhere, the Syrian opposition in Istanbul and Riyadh grieved his loss, however, hailing him as a “glorious martyr”. Top aides in Alloush’s Jaysh Al Islam (Army of Islam) issued a video on the night of December 25, mourning him as “Qamar Al Jihad” (moon of holy war), announcing that Abu Hammam Al Bouwaidani, a little-known 40-year-old Saudi-educated Islamist, will succeed him as commander of the group.
Alloush’s Saudi-backed militia is seen as a terrorist organisation by Damascus and Moscow that has no role in the future of Syria. It was established early during the Syria War and now boasts of 15,000-20,000 fighters, according to western intelligence sources. The Saudis saw a lot of promise in Alloush, furnishing him with arms and money since 2012. They lobbied hard to exclude Jaysh al-Islam from the Russian “terrorism list” that emerged after the Vienna Conference last October, prompting Alloush to sign off a high profile Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh earlier this month, which agreed to talks with Syrian officialdom, so long as it led to President Bashar Al Assad’s ouster.
Killing him appeared to be a strongly-worded Russian response to the conference.
Analysts are waiting to see if Jaysh al-Islam will survive the demise of its founder and charismatic leader. Other rebel groups like the Tawhid Brigade of northern Syria did not after its commander Abdul Qader Saleh was killed in an air strike back in November 2013; it rapidly imploded and splintered.
Unlike other militias in the Syrian battlefield, Jaysh al-Islam was strongly structured around Alloush’s cult of personality. With regional backing, he managed to travel freely out of Douma, at least twice in public, visiting Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where he went on Umrah in 2015, posing before television cameras as something of a rebel celebrity.
He would film his troops training and parading through Douma, scaring his opponents and dazzling his loyalists. His men admired him for living with them in a warzone, unlike members of the Syrian opposition who enjoy the distant luxury of European, Turkish, and Saudi hotels.
Alloush, aged 44, was the son of a Saudi-based Syrian Salafist theologian who worked in real estate development before his shift to militancy, for which he was arrested by the Syrian government and released as part of a general amnesty in June 2011. He immediately joined the armed insurgency and became a very powerful warlord, attracting international media attention. Alloush created a “state within-a-state” in Douma, packing local administration with his loyalists and family members to assure that nobody threatens his grip on power. He systematically eliminated all of his opponents in al-Ghouta — including the notorious Daesh — and monopolised access to the outside world through tunnels and a firm grip over food and fuel. Despite his brutal tactics, many opposition figures continued to support him because of all the rebels in the Damascus countryside, he was the only one inflicting real pain on the Syrian regime.
All eyes are now trained on his regional backers to see how they will react to Alloush’s elimination. When Ahrar al-Sham’s top leadership was collectively eliminated in September 2014, the backers pumped money to prevent it from demise and might be willing to do the same with Jaysh al-Islam. This might prove hard because according to Oklahoma University Professor and Syria expert Joshua Landis, “[Jaish Al Islam] has virtually been synonymous with Zahran Alloush throughout its existence.” Also the circumstances that led to Jaysh al-Islam and the emergence of Alloush are no longer there, as Al Ghouta is encircled by the Syrian regime’s army and covered fully by the Russian Air Force, which will prevent outside reinforcements from reaching Syrian rebel groups. Local militias already in Ghouta might emerge to try and fill the gap left by Alloush’s demise — settling old scores with Jaysh al-Islam, and with no collective leadership in sight, this might be a golden opportunity for the Russians to eliminate them, one after the other, ahead of the upcoming peace talks in Geneva in January.
On the same day as the strike that killed Alloush, the UN started an evacuation of 2,000 militants from the Yarmouk Palestinian Camp of southern Damascus, some of them from Daesh, who will all be taken to Raqqa, the capital of Daesh. Their evacuation, signed off by the Syrians and Russia, will help clear a major rebel pocket in the Damascus countryside, which has been rebel-held since 2012. They will be escorted to the capital of Daesh with Russian air cover. Days earlier the Syrians and Russians recaptured the northern Al Ghouta village of Marj al-Sultan and its helicopter airbase, signalling a major shift in the Damascus suburbs. This tips the balance of power in Ghouta in favour of al-Assad and his Russian allies. If the daily Syrian and Russian air strikes continue — topped with a firm siege of the villages and towns around Damascus — then a ceasefire and surrender might be in the horizon soon or a collective evacuation like the one just brokered in Yarmouk.