Russian Airstrike Kills Top Syrian Rebel Leader

A Russian airstrike killed a top Syrian rebel leader Friday, a move that could help President Assad retake control over a key area of the country.

Zahran Alloush, 44, was killed after Russian warplanes fired at least 10 missiles into the secret headquarters of Jaysh al Islam in the suburbs of eastern Damascus.

The Syrian army said Alloush was killed as the result of intelligence on the ground. Rebels blamed Russian sophisticated spying planes which they say rarely leave their skies.

Jaysh al Islam is among the largest rebel faction battling Syrian president Bashar Assad. Western intelligence puts its fighting force at between 15,000 – 20,000. Formed out of a union between different rebel brigades, the group has been effectively running the administration of the rural eastern suburban area of Damascus known as al Ghouta since 2013.

Jaysh al Islam was one of the main rebel groups that attended a recent Saudi-backed opposition meeting in Riyadh and will be part of a negotiating team that is expected to hold talks with Assad’s government in Geneva.

The area of eastern Damascus was also the site of a severe chemical weapons attack allegedly launched by President Assad in 2013. More than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the bombing that was intended to strike rebel strongholds.

Areas of al Ghouta affected by the chemical weapons attack in 2013.

Areas of al Ghouta affected by the chemical weapons attack in 2013.

“Before setting up Jaysh al Islam, Alloush had founded Liwa al-Islam, or the Brigade of Islam, with his father Abdallah, a Salafist Syrian cleric based in Saudi Arabia,” reports Reuters. “He had a postgraduate degree in religious studies from a Saudi university.”

Alloush was not without criticism. While promoting a more moderate form of Islam, he was accused of cracking down on dissidents in areas he controlled; scores of jihadists were either driven out or arrested by his forces. Activists also claimed Alloush kidnapped several prominent figures.

Syria has long accused Saudi Arabia of financing arms and other supplies to Alloush. But there have also been reports that while on regional visits to countries hostile to Assad’s government including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Alloush failed to win the support he wanted for his group.

Alloush’s death is the latest in a string of rebel leaders killed since Russia began bombing targets on September 30 in support of its ally, President Assad. Moscow has insisted that it is concentrating its attacks on the terror group Isis.

A rebel source said the group had chosen one of their top military commanders, Abu Hammam al Buwaidani, as their new leader.



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