The commander of a Syrian rebel group that controls the eastern suburbs of Damascus was killed by an air strike Friday, weeks before his faction was to attend peace talks with the Assad government in Geneva.
Zahran Alloush, 44, was the charismatic leader of the Army of Islam, an insurgency of up to 20,000 soldiers, which has been running the administration of the Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus since 2013, according to Reuters. A senior member of the group told Agence France-Presse that Alloush was killed after three planes targeted a “secret meeting” of rebel commanders. Other rebel sources have claimed that Russian planes carried out the strikes, but that has yet to be confirmed by Russian or Syrian officials.
Both the Assad government and its Russian allies consider the Army of Islam a sectarian terror group akin to the so-called Islamic State. In the past, Alloush had issued statements that “appeared sympathetic to al-Qaeda,” according to the Washington Post. But after meeting with U.S. officials this past year, Alloush moderated his tone significantly, telling the McClatchy news service in May that he wanted to see Syria governed by a “technocratic, professional” body. The Army of Islam considers ISIS an enemy, and has jailed dozens of jihadist fighters. The group has launched indiscriminate mortar attacks at areas in Damascus, generally in response to the Syrian government’s indiscriminate bombing campaigns against the Eastern Ghouta region.
Alloush was the group’s founder, the charismatic leader at the heart of the organization, according to the New York Times. The paper suggests that his death could open up a destabilizing power vacuum within the group, and strengthen Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s hand at the upcoming peace talks in Geneva.
Alloush was the son of a Salafist Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia and held a postgraduate degree in religious studies from a Saudi university. The Army of Islam has received Saudi backing, and recently attended a meeting of Syrian opposition groups hosted in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has participated in the renewed diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, but the Post speculates that the killing of Saudi-backed rebels like Alloush could erode the kingdom’s appetite for diplomacy.
Alloush’s death has already disrupted the execution of one diplomatic agreement. On Saturday, thousands of Islamic State fighters and civilians had planned to evacuate the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. The camp, located in the besieged southern districts of Syria’s capital, has been experiencing severe hunger and unsanitary conditions since ISIS attacked it last April. The United Nations had struck a deal between ISIS, Palestinian factions, and the Assad regime to remove the militants from the camp, thereby clearing the way for greater humanitarian aid to those civilians who will remain at Yarmouk.
But the Army of Islam had been tasked with providing safe passage for the evacuees through the eastern suburbs of Damascus, according to AFP, and so the operation was postponed.