Khatib: Killing of top rebel leader casts doubt over Syrian President's willingness to negotiate
Khatib: Assad trying to create scenario in which only two remaining actors in Syria are regime and ISIS
Editor’s Note: Lina Khatib is Senior Research Associate at the Arab Reform Initiative. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
The killing of Zahran Alloush and his deputy, the leaders of Jaysh al-Islam, raises serious concerns about the future of planned negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition, casting doubt over the regime’s intentions.
Alloush had initially wanted to use Jaysh al-Islam as an alternative to the Syrian National Coalition, ultimately paving the way for claiming a leading political role for himself in Syria, post-Bashar al-Assad.
During the time when Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan was in charge of the Syria file in Riyadh, Alloush had utilized Turkish and Saudi support to attract different rebel groups to merge with his own, making Jaysh al-Islam one of the biggest armed groups in Syria. But his ambitions caused an antagonistic relationship between Jaysh al-Islam and both the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria and unarmed opposition figures in the area.
Following the takeover of the Syria file from Bandar by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia cut Jaysh al-Islam’s funding in an attempt at putting pressure on Alloush to agree to cooperating with the Free Syrian Army. The pressure seemed to be working. Jaysh al-Islam was one of the participants in the meeting held in Riyadh on December 10 that brought together the main factions of the Syrian opposition for the first time to agree on a uniform position regarding political transition in Syria.
The Syrian regime and its main ally, Russia, had hitherto been benefiting from divisions among the Syrian opposition. When the different opposition factions began to show serious signs of coordination, Assad and Moscow began to actively obstruct this process of opposition harmonization.
As Saudi efforts to bring the opposition together, first announced in spring 2015, appeared to be gaining momentum, Moscow took the decision to escalate its intervention in Syria through starting an airstrikes campaign that was marketed as targeting ISIS but that in reality mostly hit the Syrian opposition.
Alloush’s death, the result of either a Syrian or a Russian air raid, comes just two weeks after an important milestone in the process of opposition harmonization, the Riyadh meeting. It also comes a month before negotiations between the regime and the opposition were meant to commence. Only a few days before Alloush’s killing, the Syrian regime had announced that it would accept negotiations with the opposition – once an opposition negotiating committee was formed that the regime considers credible.
The timing of Alloush’s death therefore casts doubt over the sincerity of the regime’s announced stance towards negotiations, especially as Russian air raids continue to primarily target Syrian rebel groups. Removing Alloush and other opposition leaders from the picture is an effort by the regime and its allies to split the groups, which would potentially make the Riyadh agreement obsolete. The regime could also then argue that there is no one credible among the opposition to negotiate with in the first place.
Assad has also been benefiting from the growth of ISIS. ISIS has been targeting the Free Syrian Army and other anti-regime groups. ISIS’s growth at the expense of moderate rebels also serves to confirm the Syrian President’s narrative that his regime is the only alternative to extremist groups.
The regime has agreed to a deal that would allow fighters from ISIS and other rebel groups to withdraw fighters from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. This move would help the regime consolidate its control over the capital, but it would also benefit ISIS because the fighters are to be moved to the latter’s stronghold Raqqa, where it is currently facing pressure from the north by U.S.-supported Kurdish and Arab rebels. As Jaysh al-Islam is currently in control of the suburb of Ghouta, east of Damascus, eliminating its leaders is also an attempt to weaken it there, further increasing the regime’s hold on the capital.
What this regime strategy aims to achieve is a scenario in which the two remaining actors in Syria would be the regime and ISIS. This would eliminate the negotiations scenario altogether, because Assad could then argue that the choices that Syria had were either his regime or ISIS.