The head of one of Syria's most powerful rebel groups Jaish al-Islam and several of its key commanders were killed in an airstrike on Friday in the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In a statement released on Friday, the Syrian General Command said that the Syrian Air Force conducted a special operation in Eastern Ghouta, which resulted in the death of Zahran Alloush, 44, the leader of the group, along with a large number of leaders, according to the Syrian Arab News Agency. The statement claimed that Alloush's group was responsible for firing rocket shells at civilians in Damascus and its suburbs. The eastern suburbs of Damascus which was under rebel control had been blockaded and under heavy bombardment by the Syrian military for the last four years.
Alloush's force, numbering thousands of men, is among the most effective militias fighting against both the Assad regime and ISIS, especially in Damascus. His death may create new opportunities for jihadi groups such as ISIS or the al Qaeda affiliate Nasra Front to draw his men. But Alloush was also a tainted figure, widely criticized for his sectarian, anti-Shia rhetoric. His passing may also create a chance to moderate the group, largely backed by Saudi Arabia, and improve its image abroad. The group's surviving leaders were said to be discussing a succession plan.
After the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline Islamist rebel group with strong Turkey ties, was assassinated, many speculated it would fade. But the group only emerged stronger.
Alloush, known as the rebel commander of Damascus, gave an interview shortly before his death to The Daily Beast in which he explained why he was fighting against the Syrian regime. "We were forced to take up arms to defend ourselves after the regime committed atrocities against us before the eyes of the world, which did not intervene to save our people," he said. "We condemn acts of violence all over the world regardless of who commits them and who are the victims." Alloush also pleaded with the international community to help break the blockade and to send in food and medicine to the area.
Syrian rebels who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that Alloush's killing will not stop their fight against the regime but it would only grow stronger.
Mustafa Serji, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that the killing is a huge setback especially because there was a deal in place on Thursday at the Riyadh conference between the Syrian government and Free Syrian Army to find a political solution to stop the war in Syria. Serji blames Russia for the death of Alloush.
"We consider his assassination is a message from Russia to Syrians and to the world," Serji told BuzzFeed News. "ISIS and the regime are one team and they are the terrorists."
Other rebels said that Alloush's assassination is a part of Russian goal in Syria to eliminate the alternative opposition to Assad.
"Russia wants to give Syrians only two choices — either ISIS or Assad," said Osama Abu Zaid, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army. "They killed the leader of Jaish al-Islam in the same time with the deal between ISIS and regime in Damascus."
Jaish al-Islam has announced Issam al-Bweidani, aka "Abu Hummam," as the successor to Zahran Alloush.