Posted by Aron Lund on Saturday, June 6th, 2015
by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.
According to rumors doing the rounds now, the Islam Army leader Mohammed Zahran Alloush has traveled to Amman to meet with foreign intelligence services and coordinate a purge of Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements in Syria.
Zahran Alloush is the most powerful rebel leader in the Damascus region. A Sunni Islamist of the salafi tendency, he is the son of a Saudi-based Syrian theologian named Abdullah Alloush. He ran into trouble with the authorities long before the uprising and was held in Seidnaia Prison until June 2011, when he was freed in an amnesty.
Upon his release, he immediately began to construct the armed faction now known as the Islam Army, which eventually grew into the most powerful militia in his hometown Douma. He now controls the Unified Command in the Eastern Ghouta, an area of satellite towns, suburbs, and farming communities on the outskirts of Damascus, which includes Douma. The Eastern Ghouta region has been under government siege for much of the uprising, turning it into an enclave; inside that enclave, Zahran Alloush is by far the most powerful leader. He is a controversial figure, however, and has been accused of silencing dissent by force.
The Unified Command and its member factions are mostly Sunni Islamists of some variety, but with considerable personal and even ideological differences between factions. Together, they have fought hard to root out the Islamic State from the Damascus region, but they have so far cooperated with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front (which is not part of the Unified Command). The idea of starting a war with the Nusra Front would be controversial among other rebels. Many are wary of Nusra’s extremism and international agenda, but they see no urgent need for diverting resources to fighting the group, which is held in high esteem for its ability to inflict damage on Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State alike. Being a very useful ally, it would also be a very dangerous enemy. Indeed, some rebels would probably feel inclined to support the Nusra Front rather than Alloush—which is precisely why the topic is so sensitive.
Zahran Alloush Goes to Turkey
In a surprise move, Zahran Alloush recently left his stronghold in the Douma to go to Turkey, where he has been meeting with foreign governments and other rebel leaders. According to recent reports, Abu Mohammed al-Fateh, who is the leader of another Ghouta-based Islamist group, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, has taken over after Zahran Alloush as head of the Ghouta Unified Command. I have asked two representatives of the Islam Army about this. One says it’s false and has been denied by all involved. The other says it is true but only a temporary arrangement, while Zahran is out of the country.
Whether or not he traveled on to Amman this week, Zahran Alloush’s trip abroad seems to be related to the recent Turkish-Saudi push to empower the Syrian rebels and reorganize the insurgency. A lot of things are happening at the moment, with the quietly Saudi-approved Cairo II conference for moderate opposition members slated to start in Cairo on Tuesday and another conference scheduled for after Ramadan in Riyadh. Meanwhile, President Khaled Khoja of the National Coalition—the Syrian opposition’s internationally recognized exile leadership—has ordered the dissolution of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, a more or less defunct exile body set up in 2012 to coordinate support to the rebellion. Something new will surely take its place. Recent reports suggest a reorganization into a two-pronged structure: the Northern Front and the Southern Front. While the insurgency in the north is a mess, albeit a successful mess, a Southern Front structure already exists, though less as an independent entity than as a label for the groups that are jointly backed and coordinated by Western and Gulf states operating out of Amman.
As these pieces start to fall into place, many suspect that Zahran is being groomed for a bigger role in the new rebel leadership structure—or at the very least, that he is independently angling for one. He may not be the most popular rebel leader in Syria, but he is surely the person most likely to grab the presidential palace if the Assad regime starts to crumble. In a recent interview with the McClatchy news agency, he tried to back away from his previous hateful rhetoric against Shia and Alawite minorities in Syria. It is hard to shake the feeling that this was aimed at making him more acceptable to Syrian and international opinion.
Now, a note of caution: there is no confirmation of these news yet. Instead, the most detailed version of the rumors about Zahran’s meetings in Amman comes from @mujtahidd, an anonymous account on Twitter that is dedicated to critical commentary on Saudi politics. Whoever or whatever is really behind the @mujtahidd account, it has an enormous following in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, but there is no way of confirming these reports—so make of them what you will.
What follows is my quick translation of @mujtahidd’s tweets, which are available in the original Arabic here.
MUJTAHIDD’S TWEETS ON ZAHRAN ALLOUSH’S VISIT TO AMMAN, JUNE 6:
Zahran Alloush spent last week meeting with Saudi, American, and Jordanian intelligence in Amman hotels, in order to coordinate the situation against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and for other tasks.
The meeting with the Americans took place a week ago. He met with the Saudis two times: last Friday between 14.30 until 16.00 and on Sunday at 20.00 in the Hayat hotel in Amman.
Saudi intelligence was represented by Abu Badr, who is close to Mohammed bin Nayef. In the first meeting, Zahran Alloush was accompanied by Mohammed Alloush and Abu Ali al-Ajwa. In the second meeting, he was alone.
The goal was to coordinate the war against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Alloush said that the war against the Nusra Front will be more difficult to justify than the war on the Islamic State, and that they will have to help him with that.
Alloush was asked to coordinate with the Southern Front, which consists of the remains of what’s left of Jamal Maarouf’s troops and the rest of the mercenaries. A meeting was set up between Alloush and Abu Osama al-Golani, who is one of the leaders of this front.
Alloush started coordinating with the Southern Front to fight the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Deraa and Quneitra. With the Saudis, he discussed replacing the Islam Army flag by the revolutionary flag.
The meetings were arranged by members of the Jordanian intelligence services. No fewer than ten were seen there and several of them attended the meetings.
Despite insisting on the destruction of the the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in all of Syria, the main focus was on keeping the Damascus front in his hands so that he will be able to reap the fruits even if the regime is toppled by someone else.
An interesting point is that the person known as Abu Badr asked in detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength on the various fronts. It was not clear if the question was in order to push them out or to make use of them.
An observation: the meetings took place in the Hayat hotel, but Alloush is living at the Crowne Plaza. Of course, they’re all in Amman. We ask God to expose all the hypocrites.
— Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.