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After Deadly Airstrike, Syrian Rebel Group Appoints New Leader

One of the biggest anti-Assad groups moved quickly to name a new leader after Zahran Alloush was killed in an apparent Russian airstrike.
A screen grab made available on 25 December 2015 from a video released by Jaysh al-Islam shows its leader Zahran Abdullah Alloush delivering a speech during a ceremony last April. EPA / Jaysh al Islam / TV grab

In an effort to mitigate what many expected to be a huge blow, one of the most powerful rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad -- Jaysh al Islam or "Army of Islam" -- has moved quickly to appoint a successor to Zahran Alloush, the commander who was killed in an airstrike on Friday outside of Damascus.

The militants, backed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, said Essam al-Buwaydhani (also known as Abu Hammam), one of the group's top field commanders, will take up Alloush's role in leading the 20,000-strong rebel force, the Associated Press reported on Saturday.


Rebel sources told VICE News on Friday that Alloush and several other rebel commanders were in the middle of a meeting when missiles struck them. Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV claims Alloush was orchestrating a reconciliation between two feuding rebel factions in the area when he was killed. In a statement published by the state-run SANA News agency, the Syrian military boasted that it had been responsible for launching the airstrike that killed Alloush. However, rebel sources told VICE News on Friday that their headquarters in the suburbs of Damascus was targeted by what they described as Russian planes.

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Several rebel leaders have been killed since Russia began a major aerial campaign on September 30 in support of Assad, its ally, whose troops earlier in the year had suffered a series of setbacks. Russian jets also struck a maternity hospital in Azaz, in Aleppo province, Al Jazeera reported on Friday.

With thousands of trained fighters, Jaysh al Islam is among the biggest and most organized rebel groups in Syria, and has been effectively running the administration of Eastern Ghouta. The group was formed from dozens of local Islamist and Salafist rebel factions. Like other members of the Islamic Front coalition, it is widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia. Alleged video of the strike that killed Alloush was broadcast on Al Manar Channel 3 later on Friday.


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. Alloush was ideologically at odds with the Islamic State and al Qaeda, espousing a more moderate brand of Islam. But Joshua Landis, the director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies and an editor for the blog Syria Comment, wrote earlier this month that the difference between Alloush's ideology and that of al Qaeda was "one of shades of grey." He cited a video in which he said Alloush calls for cleansing Damascus of all Shiites and "Nusayris" — an old term for the country's Alawite minority, of which Assad is a member, now used as an insult.

This video and Alloush' language "demonstrates how difficult it is to draw a clear line between the ideology of the Islamic Front and that of the al-Qaida groups," Landis wrote. "They both embrace foreign jihadists and encourage them to come Syria to join the fight. They both call for the resurrection of an Islamic Empire and they both look back to the Golden Age of Islam for the principles upon which the new state will be founded. Their political philosophy and blueprint for the future is largely based on a similar reading of Islamic history and the Qur'an."

In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, Alloush was asked if his group applied Sharia law in the areas it controls."Jaysh al Islam does not intervene in the judiciary body in our areas," he replied. "We have representatives in the judiciary councils. The judiciary councils include many sheikhs and jurists who represent the diversity of our community. We believe in the rule of institutions."

"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," he added. "We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represent the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims."