Analysis

By Assassinating Prominent Rebel, Russia Seeks to Dictate Who Will Run Syria

Moscow's message is twofold: It won't allow Islamist militias to assume key roles in the future Syrian government, and it won't let Saudi Arabia or Turkey influence the peace talks.

This handout photo taken on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015 provided by the Russian Defense Press Service, shows a Russian Su-25 ground attack jet parked at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria.
AP

The precision airstrike near Damascus on Friday that killed the head of one of the most powerful anti-Assad rebel militias served as additional proof, as if any was needed, that Russia intends to be the sole decider of Syria’s political future.

Zaharan Alloush, 44, was the commander of the Army of Islam. He, together with top commanders from other Islamist opposition groups, died when a meeting at the group’s headquarters in the eastern Ghouta region, northeast of Damascus, was targeted.

The Army of Islam swiftly appointed Essam al-Buwaydhani, a field commander known as Abu Hammam, as Alloush’s successor.

Alloush, the Saudi-educated son of an influential Salafist cleric stood out from among the rebel commander for his military skills. In less than four years he built a military and administrative force that united more than 50 militias under a single umbrella, turning the Army of Islam into one of the most influential political groups in the Syrian opposition.

The Army of Islam numbers over 20,000 soldiers with 26 branches around Syria. In 2014 it merged into the Islamic Front, which represents most of the Islamic militias and movements that are fighting to remove the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and replace it with an Islamic system of governance. Despite its radical religious agenda, the Army of Islam is considered one of the “moderate Islamist” groups, as the United States describes the organizations with which it is willing to cooperate.

This month, representatives of the Army of Islam participated in a conference of Syrian opposition groups and rebel factions that was aimed at agreeing on the outline of a political solution to the crisis, in preparation for the establishment of an interim provisional government in Syria based on UN Security Council resolutions. But now, after the killing of Alloush, these religious militias may well reconsider their willingness to agree to a deal based on the Russian proposal that was the basis for the UN resolution, and not participate in the dialogue between the opposition and Syrian regime expected to take place in January. A few militia spokesmen said Alloush’s murder was a direct attack on the entire opposition movement and is intended to undermine the agreements reached in Riyadh, and it reflects the true intentions of Russia.

Zahran Alloush, head of the Jaysh al Islam (Army of Islam), a Syrian rebel group, speaks during the wedding of a fighter in the group on July 21, 2015, in the rebel-held town of Duma, Syria.
AFP

Opposition sources said Friday’s attack was not random, but rather a planned strike based on precise intelligence information, and that it came while Alloush was planning reconciliation talks between two Islamic militias in the area. In the wake of the attack, the rebel militias decided to halt the withdrawal of some 4,000 Islamic State and Nusra Front fighters from southern Damascus.

Agreement on the withdrawal had been reached earlier last week among the United Nations, the Syrian government and the Army of Islam. The retreating forces were to cross areas controlled by the Army of Islam on their way to northern Syria. The withdrawal was expected to lead to the regime’s lifting of its two-year blockade on the southern neighborhoods of Damascus, and to remove the last Islamic State fighters from the capital.

Russia has been attacking the rebel groups since the beginning of its military involvement in Syria, in September. And despite its reports of over 1,000 strikes on the forces of the Islamic State organization and the agreements it has reached with Washington, Moscow is using these attacks to determine the political future of Syria.

Russia, in contrast to the position of the Obama administration, does not make any distinctions between the moderate Islamic groups and those considered to be more extreme. Moscow divides the militias between those that are willing to negotiate with the Assad regime and to allow Assad to participate in the interim government and those that oppose Assad’s participation and criticize Russia’s military involvement.

Russia has made it clear that it does not intend to allow representatives of the Islamic militias to have central positions in the interim government or in the permanent government that is supposed to be establish after the elections that, according to the UN resolution, are to be held in around six months.

To Russia, the only legitimate rebel groups are the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish militias, which it assists by providing arms and intelligence.

The assassination of Alloush seems also to be meant to warn Saudi Arabia and Turkey, both of which support the Army of Islam, that Moscow intends to dictate who will participate in the talks with the Assad regime and will not permit Saudi Arabia, and especially Turkey, to influence the negotiations. The same message is intended for Washington.

With reporting from AP.