A leading Syrian rebel leader has been killed by a Russian air strike in a suburb of Damascus. Multiple reports confirm that 45-year-old Zahran Alloush died Friday afternoon in a series of 13 attacks, which appear to have been a coordinated plan to decapitate his Jaysh-al-Islam (Army of Islam) coalition. Jaysh-al-Islam is the leading anti-government rebel group around the Syrian capital and controls up to 25,000 fighters from an assortment of jihadist groups, but the death of the charismatic Alloush is likely to be a major setback for them.

Alloush, the son of a Salafist preacher who currently lives in Saudi Arabia, was jailed for weapons possession in 2009 but released in 2011 as part of a general amnesty.

However he quickly formed a jihadist group, the Liwa-al-Islam (Brigade of Islam) that has been linked to a series of bombings and kidnappings. This group cooperated with local al-Qaida affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, who Alloush described as “our brothers”; in 2013 around 60 jihadist groups, including al-Nusra, formed an alliance with Liwa-al-Islam under Alloush’s leadership.

Alloush "was jihadist hardliner"

Early reporting of Alloush’s death has described him as a moderate Islamist, but his record contradicts that. As well as his early cooperation with al-Nusra he made a series of statements indicating hardline attitudes. Alloush frequently referred to Syria’s Shia and Alawite minorities as “filthy” and “despicable”, he also praised Osama bin Laden and claimed denounced democracy, calling for Syria to become an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law.

Groups operating as part of Jaysh-al-Islam have been linked to a number of atrocities and war crimes, including the December 2013 murder of Christian, Alawite, Druze and Shia civilians by al-Nusra and rocket attacks against Alawite civilian areas in Damascus. Alawites kidnapped by Jaysh-al-Islam have been locked in cages and used as human shields to deter attacks by the Syrian Air Force.

Alloush also condemned the Syrian Kurds and publicly supported Turkish attacks against Kurdish groups.

Jaysh-al-Islam received funding and possibly military training from Saudi Arabia. Earlier this month they took part in the Riyadh conference on ending the Syrian conflict, raising the worrying prospect of them being part of a transitional government.

Alloush refused to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army and other non-jihadist groups, and it’s unlikely that Jaysh-al-Islam will change that position following his death – the group is ideologically committed to establishing an Islamic state.

Russian attack could destroy jihadi coalition

Since its foundation Jaysh-al-Islam has been a major player in the civil war, so it was inevitable that it would attract Russian attention eventually. Today’s strikes look like a deliberate attempt to wipe out as many of the group’s leaders as possible; reporting from Middle Eastern News agencies says that as well as Alloush several other commanders were killed as they took part in a meeting, which means the Russian pilots were probably acting on intelligence information.

The big question now is what will happen to Jaysh-al-Islam with its founder and leader dead. One possible outcome is that the alliance will disintegrate into infighting as its component groups try to grab the leadership for themselves. Coalitions among jihadist groups are notoriously fragile, and if Russian air power triggers the breakup of this one it will be a major boost to President Assad’s chances of remaining in power.

Image by mashleymorgan and used under CC BY SA2.0 license

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