“For sure it will cause a big delay and it may kill the whole process. Whoever committed this crime is pushing for a military solution, not a political process solution.”
That’s a quote from Hadi al-Bahra, a Syrian opposition leader. The comments come a day after an apparent Russian airstrike killed Zahran Alloush. Alloush, the son of Saudi-based cleric Abdallah Alloush, is (or, more appropriately “was”) the leader of Jaysh al Islam, a powerful Syrian opposition group whose forces number some 10,000.
The group controls Ghouta, the site of an infamous sarin gas attack that nearly served as the excuse for a US air campaign against the Assad regime in 2013. Alloush was violently anti-Shiite and anti-Alawite but was seen as “moderate” when compared to ISIS and al-Nusra. Jaysh al Islam has fought against Islamic State in various parts of Syria.
In the wake of the commander’s death, some say UN “efforts” to negotiate a truce will now be all but impossible. As we noted on Friday, Jaysh al Islam was among the rebel groups invited to a summit in Riyadh earlier this month.”Two Army of Islam officials were among those who attended a meeting this month bringing together both the political and armed opposition,” WSJ writes, adding that “they signed a final declaration that envisioned a secular, democratically elected government in the future without Mr. Assad.”
The Syrian government has said it’s willing to meet with opposition leaders in Geneva next month. According to Hezbollah (which functions as Putin’s ground force in Syria), “the strike also killed Abdul-Nasser Shmeir, an officer who defected from the Syrian army and headed another leading Damascus-area rebel group [as well as] Mr. Alloush’s brother Mahmoud and at least 16 other rebel commanders.” Here’s more:
Despite its name, the Army of Islam is considered one of the more moderate Islamist rebel groups in Syria. Mr. Alloush considered himself a bitter enemy of both Mr. Assad and the head of Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—often calling them both “gang leaders.” His group fought pitched battles to chase Islamic State out of the eastern suburbs of the capital.
But the Syrian regime and its allies Iran and Russia consider the Army of Islam a “terrorist group” that like many other rebel factions should be precluded from any role in a future settlement. Some in the opposition also had misgivings about any prominent role for Mr. Alloush and his group, which has been accused of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.
Mr. Alloush’s killing coincided with preparations on Friday by the Syrian regime to facilitate the transfer of up to 4,000 people, including many fighters linked to Islamic State and other extremist groups as well as their families, from rebel-held areas on the southern outskirts of Damascus as part of U.N.-mediated efforts to expand a local cease-fire.
There are a couple of things worth noting there. First, there wasn't anything "moderate" about "Mr." Alloush. He essentially called for a genocide of Syrian Shiites in 2013. You can watch the video in the piece excerpted above.
The fact that anyone considers him a "moderate" undercores The Kremlin's point that differentiating between terrorists is an exercise in futility and it's also worth noting that there's no coincidence inherent in Riyadh allowing someone who has pushed for the eradiction of Shiites a place at the negotiating table.
Second, the plan to evacuate injured fighters as well as women and children from Damascus will likely now be placed on hold. "Jaish al-Islam was supposed to provide safe passage through areas east of Damascus for the buses heading to Raqa," a source told AFP on Saturday. "About 1,200 people were supposed to leave today (Saturday), but the death of Zahran Alloush means we are back to square one." Here's a bit more color:
The deal came after two months of intense talks between government and district leaders, according to the Britain-based monitor.
Backed by Saudi Arabia, Army of Islam recently took part in a landmark opposition meeting in Riyadh aimed at forming a united front for eventual talks with Assad's regime.
It has remained firmly opposed to both Assad and IS.
Analyst Karim Bitar said Alloush's death is "a severe blow to the Riyadh negotiations process".
"Given Alloush's authoritarian temper and strong rule, it will take time for Jaish al-Islam to recover from this blow and for the alternative leadership to emerge," he said.
Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website, said: "In a way, Zahran Alloush has been the rare successful centraliser in the Syrian rebel movement."
But with him gone, that cohesion could "unravel", Lund added.
And make no mistake, all of this is just fine with Assad, whose army took credit for the strike despite widespread speculation that is was in fact a Russian warplane that carried out the attack. A Saudi-backed coalition of Sunni rebels is just about the last thing the Syrian government (not to mention Tehran) wants to see coalesce in Syria and the death of Alloush will certainly help to create choas among one of the country's most prominent opposition forces.
As for the Western media, the death of an extremist is being pitched as a blow the peach process. Here's The New York Times:
Mr. Alloush and his faction had not been universally accepted in the Syrian opposition — they are widely blamed for the disappearance of four secular opposition activists from the Damascus suburb of Douma. But 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 talks,” he said.
No, it's not.
It's a rejection of the idea that someone who has variously called for the systematic extermination of a particular religious sect can somehow be part of a "political" solution to the crisis. Anyone who says otherwise is either living in a fantasy world constructed by the powers that be in Washington and Riyadh, or else has a vested interest in toppling the Assad government and undermining Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula.