So Zahran Alloush, the controversial military commander of Jaysh al-Islam, one of the largest non-secular Opposition groups in Syria, and five of his close colleagues have been assassinated in a targeted airstrike by the Syrian or Russian air forces in the rebel-held district of Ghouta. Despite his initial adherence to an intolerant, Salafist-shaped version of political Islam, Alloush proved himself more diplomatically adept in recent months and was being promoted by Turkey and Saudi Arabia as their Syrian “strongman”. His loss will be a pointedly symbolic blow to their geo-political ambitions in the region. The killing coincided with news of a tentative ceasefire negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, a deal intended to facilitate the withdrawal of a significant number of non-government insurgents from the outliers of the Syrian capital, the majority linked to the theocratic Islamic State (IS). Rather than seeking to destabilise this agreement the motive for the assassination of Alloush seems to have been a desire by the besieged Damascus regime to alleviate pressure on IS which has suffered several humiliations at the hands of the former’s well-equipped movement in the disputed north-east of the country.
While concrete evidence has been hard to come by it’s likely that the isolated Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has permitted several informal truces with IS cadres in a number of areas around Syria, an expedient version of my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend. Though Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation may be less sanguine about such deals given its anti-Islamist rhetoric there’s little doubt that Russia’s attacks have fallen with disproportionate force on those anti-Assad groups which are – coincidentally – in fiercest competition with the Islamic State or functioning as the anti-IS proxies of the Persian Gulf potentates. In this light the Damascus agreement between the representatives of Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, may well have required an element of quid pro quo focusing on the removal of Zahran Alloush.
As always the civil war in Syria is a quagmire of competing alliances and loyalties.