Syrian Rebels Mourn Loss of Leader, Name Replacement – Voice of America

Syrian militant groups mourned Saturday the death of a powerful rebel commander who was killed in an airstrike near Damascus before naming a top military commander as his successor.


Syrian rebels and the government said Friday that Zahran Alloush, founder of the Army of Islam, was killed in a raid that targeted the group’s headquarters in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.


Alloush’s death is a significant blow to the armed opposition, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad ahead of new peace talks scheduled for early 2016.


The Army of Islam appointed a top field commander, Essam al-Buwaydhani, a field commander known as Abu Hammam, as Alloush’s replacement on Saturday.


This image made from video of drone footage allegedly showing Syrian army airstrikes targeting Zahran Allouch, the head of the Army of Islam group near Damascus, Syria, Dec. 25, 2015.

This image made from video of drone footage allegedly showing Syrian army airstrikes targeting Zahran Allouch, the head of the Army of Islam group near Damascus, Syria, Dec. 25, 2015.


The strike, which also killed other senior members of the group, came days after the United Nations passed a resolution endorsing a path to peace in Syria.


“The martyrdom of Sheikh Zahran Allouch should be a turning point in the history of the revolution and rebel groups should realize they are facing a war of extermination by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime,” said Labib Nahhas, a senior member of the Ahrar al-Sham group, which also lost commanders in the airstrike.


“The next stage will witness the liquidation of those leaders who began the uprising,” wrote Abu Hassan al-Muhajer, another senior member of the group on Twitter, according to The Associated Press.


Other insurgent groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front lamented Alloush’s  killing.


Participants in peace talks


The Army of Islam was to have participated in that process. But it is regarded by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, as a sectarian terrorist group that differs little from more extremist groups like the Islamic State.


The Syrian army claimed responsibility for the airstrike that killed Alloush, saying they had received intelligence on the ground. However, many among the opposition groups blamed Russia’s sophisticated spying planes.



Alloush, who was in his mid-40s and had studied Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, was released from a Syrian prison in 2011 as part of an amnesty and then joined the revolt against the government.


His group defended an area that has faced repeated and indiscriminate air raids by the government. His forces, in turn, have fired indiscriminate mortar salvos at areas in Damascus, killing and wounding scores of civilians.


Although Alloush’s forces have battled extremist groups such as the Islamic State, he also had issued statements that appeared sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria and al-Qaida’s late leader, Osama bin Laden.


Army of Islam


In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, a U.S.-based news and opinion website, Alloush distanced himself from Jabhat al-Nusra, claiming he supported only Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of al-Nusra’s Sharia advisers. “We saw that Qahtani was showing a moderate face and we wanted to encourage those efforts,” he said. “Now al-Nusra has different Sharia advisers, and ours have many disagreements with them, ideologically and intellectually.”


Despite the name of his organization, Alloush denied the group wants to spread Sharia in its areas of control. But he had plenty of criticism about democracy.


“The democracy of Assad, the pluralism of the Baath and the Islamism of ISIS are a few examples. The Western double standards are also applied to democracy. While democracy is used to serve people’s interests in the West, democracy is manipulated in our countries to bring villains to rule as agents for outside powers,” he said.


FILE - Zahran Alloush, center, commander of Army of Islam, sits during a conference in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, Aug. 27, 2014.

FILE – Zahran Alloush, center, commander of Army of Islam, sits during a conference in the town of Douma, eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, Aug. 27, 2014.


“We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represents the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims.”


Alloush was also critical of the policies of the Obama administration toward the Syrian crisis.


“America is a powerful country and it can play a major role to end the Syrian conflict if it wants,” he said. “But the current administration refuses to play this role and acts with cold blood when it comes to Syria. It has failed to respond effectively to Assad’s massacres, and we saw that obviously when Assad crossed the ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons. America was able to stop the chemical attacks, but it didn’t care.


“Even if the administration didn’t want to intervene directly, it is still able to support the real revolutionary groups which are capable of toppling Assad and at the same time defeating ISIS. Instead, it is promoting weak groups and supporting them just to say, ‘We are doing something for Syria.’ “


Peace talks


This week, the United Nations announced that it would hold peace talks in Geneva early next year.


Geneva was the site of two rounds of U.N.-brokered peace talks early last year between Assad’s government and rebels who have been fighting him since March 2011.


FILE - A civil defense member gestures towards a rebel fighter as they search for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian Air Force in Idlib city, Syria Dec. 20, 2015.

FILE – A civil defense member gestures towards a rebel fighter as they search for survivors at a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian Air Force in Idlib city, Syria Dec. 20, 2015.


Those negotiations ended with little progress, and momentum for a peace deal evaporated while the conflict became more complex with the addition of Islamic State militants seizing large portions of eastern Syria.


But in recent months, the push for peace has been renewed, including several international meetings bringing together world powers with a commitment to get the warring sides talking again.


Stability


Diplomats such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have promoted ending the civil war as the most important step in defeating Islamic State fighters and bringing stability to the region.


The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution last week expressing support for a Syrian-led political process, facilitated by the U.N., with the goal of establishing a transitional government in six months and holding elections in 18 months.


The conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and forced half the country’s population to flee Syria as refugees or move to another part of the country to escape the fighting.


Smita Nordwall and Chris Hannas contributed to this report.

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