Credit Amer Almohibany/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Last Friday, Zahran Alloush, the powerful leader of the Army of Islam, one of the many rebel groups fighting the Assad regime in Syria, was killed in an air strike by Assad forces east of Damascus. The Saudi-backed Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam) currently controls much of the urban area east of Damascus known as East Ghouta, which has been under blockade and bombardment by government forces for the last four years.
Alloush’s death highlighted how he had become a powerful, albeit controversial leader of one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups. His complexities are often difficult to grasp. On the one hand, both Islamist and moderate non-Islamist anti-Assad allied groups in Syria have mourned his killing, labeling Alloush as a martyr. On the other hand, both Assad supporters and the anti-Assad extremist ISIS group cheered his death. Alloush had in fact fought both Assad and ISIS; hence earning the hatred of both.
Both pundits and Syria observers have been divided in their views about Alloush. The assessments varied from labeling him as moderate, to non-radical Salafi Islamist, to a radical-al-Qaeda inspired Jihadi. It is as if all the shades of grey had been congregated into one man.
To understand Alloush, it is better to start with his own words. Just two weeks ago, the Daily Beast interviewed Alloush. Scrolling through the interview, it is clear how Alloush wanted to portray himself as a solid political leader, willing to listen to others, and determined to fight both Assad and extreme radical groups like the Islamic State (ISIS). However, his answers on ideology and commitment to democracy were a bit ambiguous.
When asked about Islamic Sharia law, he avoided highlighting his personal views, instead, he said that his group does not “intervene in the judiciary body” in his controlled area. Alloush also said, “We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims.” In reality, however, Alloush was indeed an Islamist and was a Salafi preacher before the eruption of the Syrian war. He might not have subscribed to the Salafi Jihadi doctrine, but he was not just a “Muslim.” Additionally, Alloush praised the Al-radical Islamist Al-Qaeda Al-Nusra Front, which contradicts his own denial of Islamism. As for ISIS, another radical group, it is true that Alloush relentlessly fought the Islamic State and drove it out from several neighborhoods. These actions however seemed more rooted in a turf war, rather than being politically or ideology related, as asserted by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis in Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment Blog.
Further, regarding his commitment to democracy, Alloush initially asserted in an interview in 2014, “We will not let democracy be imposed upon Syria.” However, in the Daily Beast interview, Alloush tried to soften his stance while still blaming the West, “When I criticized democracy, I was referring to the manipulation of people through lies covered by attractive colors.” “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.”
On the ground, Alloush brought some stability inside his controlled area inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, but his methods to achieve stability, as Aron Lund wrote, were not pretty. According to Lund, Alloush was accused of stuffing the local administration with cronies and family members to assure that no one could threaten his grip on power, of monopolizing access to the outside world through a system of tunnels, of selling aid and food at inflated prices, and of suppressing dissent with brutal means, including torture and assassination.
Additional question marks also surfaced about Alloush after the 2013 kidnapping of Razan Zeitouneh and three other well-known secular human rights activists in Douma, an area under his strong influence. The families of the kidnapped noted that men under his command had previously threatened the activists. In a Daily Beast interview, however, Alloush denied the accusations, “The case of Razan Zeitouneh has been used to demonize Jaysh al-Islam by many sides. Most people do not know that Jaysh al-Islam facilitated Zeitouneh’s entrance into eastern Ghouta. He added, “Why would we bring her in and then kidnap her? It is illogical.” Whichever the case may be, what actually happened to Zeitouneh and the other activists gives us a glimpse of a dim future for non-Islamist activists in an Islamist dominant society.
Another alarming side of Alloush was highlighted by Ann Bernard in her New York Times profile. Bernard wrote how Alloush had enemies and critics among fellow opponents of the Assad regime, “Some insurgents have long accused him of making lucrative deals with the government or hoarding Saudi-supplied arms rather than using them to help overmatched insurgents in other areas around Damascus.”
Alloush’s life and death sums up the ugliness and complexities of the Syrian tragedy that has no doubt been triggered by the ruthless regime of Assad. Alloush was neither an angel nor the devil. Bachar El-Halabi, a Lebanese researcher told me that when it comes to Syria, we have to admit that the Islamists, with their different arrays of ideologies, will represent a big chunk of the future. He added, “They are a reality that was forged throughout years of conflict.” El-Haalabi believes, however, that after Assad there won’t be a single Assad–like figure running the show, “which is why people like Alloush get some sympathy from anti-Assad activists.”
The debate about Alloush is a good example of how the “window” of politically acceptable options can be pushed to accept the likes of Alloush as a mainstream option. In a country with several shades of Islamism, all competing to win and dominate the scene, new groups become ever more extreme, making less extreme groups seem relatively “moderate” in comparison. In reality, Alloush did not belong to the darkest shades of Islamism, but it is also not necessarily accurate to label his Islamism as “moderate.” We need to refrain from using extreme radicalism as the benchmark for moderation. Alloush was politically moderate rather than ideologically moderate.
At the end of the day, Alloush symbolized how clarity in Syria died a long time ago with the endless human tragedies that have plagued this war-torn country. It is understandable to see Syrians divided in their views. However, to save Syria, it is crucial for outsiders, mediators, and independent observers to have a clearer vision and independent benchmarks about what is political moderation and ideological moderation. After five years of abhorrent bloodshed, Syria cannot afford further confusion or wishful thinking.
For more insight on Alloush and his group Army of Islam, read this piece by Hassan Hassan, which is also published today.