Rebels in Syria were in mourning on Saturday after the head of one of the most powerful insurgent groups in the country was assassinated in an airstrike near Damascus on Friday. The killing of Zahran Allouch, the head of the Army of Islam, marks a big blow to the militant groups opposing the government. It doesn’t just mark a big threat to the rebel control over the eastern suburbs of Damascus but “disarray among the rebel forces could also consolidate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over the rest of the area,” notes Reuters.
The assassination could also provide a “morale boost to Assad’s beleaguered forces,” points out the Washington Post.
Although the Syrian army claimed it carried out the airstrike that killed Allouch, many in the opposition are convinced Russia was really to blame. Allouch is the latest insurgent leader who has been killed since Russia began its airstrikes that Moscow insists are focused on the Islamic State. But the killing follows a pattern. The New York Times explains:
Analysts said the strikes were in keeping with longstanding efforts by the Syrian government and its allies to eliminate groups claiming to occupy a middle ground between Mr. Assad and the Islamic State. The efforts are part of a broader objective to improve Mr. Assad’s standing among Western governments, which despise him but also see the Islamic State as an increasing menace.
The Army of Islam had sent representatives to Saudi Arabia this month to participate in talks among the different opposition groups to decide on representatives for peace talks that are supposed to begin next month. But in an illustration of how complicated the situation in Syria has become, many in the opposition had trouble accepting Allouch as a legitimate ally in part due to his extremism and brutal tactics. The Associated Press explains:
Critics accused him of sectarian politics and brutal tactics similar to that of the Islamic State group.
He is blamed by other opposition groups for the December 2013 disappearance of four prominent activists, including human rights activist and lawyer Razan Zaytouni. He has denied holding them, although they were abducted from an area under Army of Islam control.
Earlier this year, after government airstrikes on the suburbs of Damascus killed dozens, Allouch's fighters forced some Alawites whom his group was holding into cages that were then displayed in public areas and markets, using them as human shields to try to prevent further airstrikes. Alawites are a Shiite offshoot to which Assad's family also belongs.
The Army of Islam quickly appointed Essam al-Buwaydhani, a field commander known as Abu Hammam, as its new leader.