Killing of rebel chiefs is a blow to search for Syria deal
BEIRUT - The December 25th assassination of Zahran Alloush, charismatic leader of one of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria, in an air strike widely blamed on Russia dealt a serious blow to the most determined diplomatic effort yet to end a conflict that many fear will, if left unchecked, consign the Middle East to armageddon Saudi Arabia’s execution of dissident Shia cleric Nimr Baqr al-Nimr on January 2nd sharply escalated Riyadh’s long-smouldering power struggle with Iran and further dimmed the prospect of progress at peace talks scheduled to open in Geneva on January 25th.
Some saw the action by Saudi Arabia, one of the key regional powers involved in the Syrian war, as reckless in the extreme, because it seriously complicates already difficult negotiations for a political transition in Syria that might end a conflict in which at least 250,000 people have perished and half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced or become refugees.
But on a wider canvas, the Saudis also feel betrayed by the Americans over the July 14th nuclear agreement with Tehran and what they see as a US strategic shift towards the Islamic Republic.
The execution of Nimr, an outspoken critic of the House of Saud and its 4,000 princes, and the subsequent rupture of relations between Riyadh and Tehran mean it is unlikely that Iran and Saudi Arabia will sit down at the same table in Geneva as agreed in December to negotiate over Syria.
But if the Saudis’ strategic stumbles are impeding diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian bloodbath, the Russians, key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who depends on them to maintain his fragile grip on power, are suspected to doing so as well but with a different set of targets.
The assassination of Alloush was widely perceived as the work of the Russians, whose air campaign against Assad’s enemies launched on September 30th has been heavy-handed and indiscriminate, to say the least.
Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want the reviled Syrian president to be toppled and has made it very clear since he sent Russian forces into Syria to rescue the foundering regime that he is prepared to crush those who seek Assad’s downfall.
The Syrians claimed responsibility for the Christmas Day attack on the headquarters of the jihadist coalition known as Jaysh al-Islam in the eastern Damascus suburb of Otaya that also killed five other commanders.
Jaysh al-Islam, which groups Islamist and Salafist factions, is one of the most powerful Syrian rebel forces and controls the Eastern Ghouta and Douma districts, which cover much of the Damascus suburbs, right on Assad’s doorstep.
In November, Jaysh al-Islam and six other major groups announced a new alliance called the Islamic Front, which also includes the powerful Ahrar al-Sham group, with a combined strength of about 45,000 fighters. Alloush was designated its head of military operations.
The authoritative Alloush, the son of a Saudi Salafist cleric, was one of the most controversial figures of the insurgency. He openly advocated an Islamic state in Syria, yet he went to a broad-based December gathering in Riyadh attended by some 100 rebel chieftains to agree on a united position in UN-sponsored talks with the Assad regime in Geneva.
If the Geneva talks are to have any hope of success, and these are fragile enough already, rebel warlords like Alloush would have to participate to make them credible.
Alloush had frequently cooperated with the Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, but of late he had sought to distance himself from hard-line Islamist organisations, apparently to ensure Jaysh al-Islam has a seat at Geneva.
In the dog-eat-dog Syrian war, he had many enemies, including the regime. But he is the first prominent rebel leader who has been killed in targeted attacks in recent weeks, and some of these are perceived as part of a Russian effort to eliminate senior rebel chieftains and sabotage the Geneva parley.
On January 5th, 11 days after Alloush was killed, Abu Rateb al-Homsi, Ahrar al-Sham’s commander in Homs province in central Syria, was killed by gunmen in mysterious circumstances in the north of the province. There are widespread suspicions the Russians were behind the assassination.
Several rebel leaders have been killed since Russian air strikes began. While these may be listed as normal combat deaths, Labib al- Nahhas, Ahrar al-Sham’s foreign relations chief, warned after Alloush was killed: “Rebel groups should realise they’re facing a war of extermination by Putin’s regime.”
Beirut-based analyst Haid Haid said the Alloush assassination was “part of a systematic effort to sabotage the… talks by targeting the group’s leaders… which makes the mission easier” by deepening divisions within these groups or provoke them into attacking Damascus and thus “walk out of the talks”.