The leader of a powerful Syrian opposition group that had signalled its willingness to participate in a negotiated political process to end the war was killed in an airstrike on Friday, various media outlets reported.
Local activists say a Russian airstrike killed Zahran Alloush — the leader of a key rebel group operating around Damascus known as Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) — though the Russia-backed Syrian regime has publicly taken credit for the attack.
In any case, experts say the airstrike that killed Alloush and several other Jaysh leaders was part of a larger strategy employed by Russia and the regime to turn military victories into diplomatic leverage ahead of negotiations over Syria’s future.
Those talks are due to begin in late January. Until then, the goal is to back the rebels and their remaining supporters into a corner to bolster the position of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“It’s all part of the rules of engagement Russia wants to set up,” Tony Badran, a Middle East expert and researcher at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Saturday.
“Russia hits Jaysh al-Islam, forcing the group to decide between removing itself from the political process altogether — at which point it will be labelled a terrorist group — or coming to the table, emasculated, to talk to Assad. All while Russia reserves the right to strike the group.”
Russia reserves this right, Badran argued, because Washington has waffled in negotiating a definitive list of terrorist groups in Syria — a contentious process that US Secretary of State John Kerry has delayed in order to ensure talks are not derailed before they even begin.
Under an agreement reached in Vienna in November, negotiations between the opposition and Assad’s government will be followed closely by a cease-fire involving all parties except ISIS, Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups listed as “terrorists” by Jordan, Russia, and the US-led coalition.
But a definitive list that all parties agree upon has yet to emerge, which means that Russia (which had reportedly placed Jaysh al-Islam on its own list of terror groups) and the regime (which considers all opposition factions to be terrorists) have been able to target certain groups with impunity — even if these rebels, such as Jaysh al-Islam, have signalled a willingness to come to the table.
“Washington has given Moscow a huge political gift in not holding Russia accountable for its pattern of targeting moderate rebel groups and their leaders instead of ISIS,” Badran said. “And Moscow is going to leverage it.”
Indeed, the UN has announced its determination not to let events on the ground “derail the fragile political process.” The US
Alloush’s death came one month after members of Jaysh al-Islam, whose primary base of operations are the Damascus neighbourhoods of Douma and Eastern Ghouta, participated in the Riyadh conference in Saudi Arabia. It was the most serious attempt yet to unify Syria’s fragmented opposition into a cohesive political entity capable of negotiating with Assad.
Members of Jaysh signed the conference statement, indicating a degree of commitment to the political process. Whether Alloush’s death derails that commitment remains to be seen. But Russia and the regime have already signalled that they intend to break the rebel groups as much as possible in order to maintain the upper hand in negotiations.
“If you’re Putin or Assad, these are part of your strategic calculations,” Badran said. “The thinking goes, ‘If you don’t sit and shut up, you’re going to be eliminated.'”
Indeed, in a statement released online following Alloush’s death, a member of the opposition Syrian Coalition, Burhan Ghalioun, said that “the assassination of Zahran Alloush, who officially agreed to engage in negotiations with the Assad regime, is a clear message to the Syrian opposition as a whole that the talks about a political solution are just a verbal hoax.”
He added: “The assassination also means that the Russians and Assad have already taken a decision to liquidate all rebel leaders.”
Labib Nahhas, a senior member of the powerful rebel Syrian rebel brigade Ahrar al-Sham, echoed this sentiment to The Associated Press.
“The martyrdom of Sheikh Zahran Alloush should be a turning point in the history of the revolution,” he said. “And rebel groups should realise they are facing a war of extermination by Putin’s regime.”
Hassan Hassan, a Middle East expert and co-author of the book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, had a more optimistic outlook. He wrote in The National on Sunday that Alloush’s death “might deflate existing tensions” among the various rebel factions in Syria.
“It will also probably increase military cooperation, which was recently undermined by disagreements, rivalry and measured hostility,” he added.
How Alloush’s death affects rebel unity on the ground remains to be seen. But whether the opposition bands together or remains fragmented, opts out of the political process or sits at the table, one thing remains clear: its members and leaders will continue getting hit.
“Russia wants to establish a precedent to kiss a nationwide ceasefire goodbye,” Badran said. “So it is putting pressure on these rebel groups to get them to say, ‘The hell with this — if I’m going to get killed anyway, I’m not going to do it while negotiating with Assad.'”
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