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.
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.