Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Zahran Alloush, Leader of Jaish al-Islam

Zahran Alloush remains one of the most controversial figures in the Syrian war.

Zahran Alloush Jaish al-Islam
Zahran Alloush, head of Jaish al-Islam. Photo Roy Gutman/ZUMA

Zahran Alloush is the founder and leader of Jaish al-Islam (Arabic, “Army of Islam”), a Syrian rebel militia consisting entirely of 20,000 to 30,000 Syrian fighters operating mainly around the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Son of Abdullah Alloush, a prominent Salafist clergyman and preacher, Zahran was born in 1970 in the city of Douma, in the eastern Damascus countryside (known also as Eastern Ghouta). Following in his father’s footsteps, Alloush studied Sharia (Islamic law) at the University of Damascus and then pursued higher Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia before returning to Douma, where he practised Islamic preaching and started a small construction business.

Early in 2009, two years before the outbreak of war in Syria, the Syrian security services arrested Alloush for his jihadi activism. He was detained for about two years before being released in June 2011 as part of an amnesty granted by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which several observers viewed as an attempt by the regime to enable extremists to take over what was initially a peaceful uprising.

Shortly after his release, Alloush established a military force called Liwa al-Islam (Arabic, “Brigade of Islam”) in his hometown, Douma, to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime.

On 18 July 2012, Alloush’s group seized the headlines, claiming responsibility for bombing the national security headquarters, an operation that killed three of Assad’s key security aides: President Assad’s brother-in-law and deputy chief of staff Assef Shawkat, the defence minister General Dawoud Rajha, and the assistant vice president Major General Hassan Turkmani. However, there is still some doubt that the group was, in fact, responsible.

In September 2013, Alloush expanded Liwa al-Islam into Jaish al-Islam, bringing some 50 Islamist factions in the suburbs of Damascus under his leadership. In November 2013, Jaish al-Islam joined forces with other six Islamic factions to form a nationwide alliance named the Islamic Front, of which Alloush became the military chief.

Joining the Islamic Front, Jaish al-Islam expanded its presence to other regions of the country, including those of Qalamoon (central Syria) and the Aleppo countryside (northern Syria), although Eastern Ghouta remained its stronghold.

Alloush is said to be backed by Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom was reportedly behind the establishment of Jaish al-Islam and is thought to have played a key role in founding the Islamic Front.

In the battles it has fought against the regime forces since 2012, Liwa al-Islam, and, later, Jaish al-Islam, has seized about 80 percent of the total area of Eastern Ghouta.

“The dogs of hell”

Jaish al-Islam has also been fighting the Islamic State (IS), which Alloush always calls “the dogs of hell.” The war between Jaish al-Islam and IS began in the Aleppo countryside towards the end of 2013, when IS launched attacks against Islamic Front checkpoints, seeking to extend its territory. The skirmishes soon turned into open war between the two sides, which is being fought today in the Damascus countryside, the Qalamoon region, and the area around Aleppo.

Jaish al-Islam and IS have almost the same number of fighters, though IS is better equipped and more self-funded. Due to Jaish al-Islam’s heavy presence in the south, however, it has been able to drive IS out of Eastern Ghouta and is combating it effectively in Qalamoon.

On the other hand, Jaish al-Islam has maintained good relations with IS’s bitter enemy, al-Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which has about 15,000 fighters and operates mainly in northwestern Syria. In a video released late in 2013, Alloush praised Jabhat al-Nusra and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, describing its members as his “courageous brothers.”

According to the World Health Organization, about one million civilians live in the area ruled by Alloush in Ghouta. Since its fall to Jaish al-Islam, the region has been under a tight siege and constant airstrikes by regime forces. It was also the site of chemical attacks in August 2013, presumably by government troops, which killed hundreds of civilians.

In December 2013, award-winning peace activist and lawyer Razan Zaitouneh was taken, along with her husband and two colleagues, from an office in Jaish al-Islam–controlled Douma. Alloush has been widely accused of being behind Zaitouneh’s disappearance, an accusation he has repeatedly denied.

Alloush has also been widely criticized for his frequent, indiscriminate shelling of Damascus, in which hundreds of rockets have killed dozens of civilians.

In April 2015, Alloush surprised the public when he showed up in Istanbul. A Jaish al-Islam spokesperson said that Alloush was going to hold meetings with rebels and other opposition figures to discuss ways of lifting the siege on civilians in Ghouta, but many observers saw the trip in the context of a possible Saudi-Turkish alliance that was expected to shift the balance of power in Syria in favour of the rebels.

The public received the news of Alloush’s trip with much discontent, as evident in social media. Their focus was on how Alloush made it out of Ghouta and was able to return, while the area was under a tight siege and its people were starving.

In fact, numerous protests have been reported against Jaish al-Islam in the areas under its control. Muhammad al-Doumani, an activist from Douma, says, via Skype, that the group has been very repressive of internal criticism. “Thousands of people are being imprisoned without trial,” he says. Al-Doumani also accused the leaders of Jaish al-Islam of monopolizing the region’s aid and food resources, starving the population, and of striking deals with traders who increase prices in the besieged areas.

On several occasions, Alloush denounced democracy as a corrupt system and left no doubt that he sought the establishment of an Islamic state in a post-Assad Syria, but, in his first interview with a US media outlet, he changed his rhetoric. In the interview, which he gave in May 2015 to the Washington-based McClatchy newspaper chain while in Istanbul, Alloush walked back previous calls to expel Alawites from Damascus and called them, instead, “part of the Syrian people.” He also said he would let Syrians decide what sort of state they wanted. “We want to establish a state in which our rights are fulfilled,” he said, denouncing what he called the “sectarian discrimination” against the Sunni Muslim majority. “After that, the people should choose the sort of state they want.” He said he would favour a “technocratic, professional government.”

Until his death, Zahran Alloush remained one of the most controversial figures in the Syrian war. Despite the objections and suspicions many Syrians had about his approach, he was seen by many as a gallant leader. Prior to his death, everyone appeared to have agree that, as long as Alloush was leading the strongest opposition faction in and around the capital, he would remain a major player in the Syrian war.

Late December 2015, Zahran Alloush was killed during an air strike on al-Marj, eastern Ghouta. Members of Jaish al-Islam elected his successor Abu Himam al-Buwaydani hours after the strike carried out by the Syrian armed forces.

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