Jaysh al-Islam: Rebels at the Gates of Damascus
Elizabeth Tsurkov reviews these issues, based in part on an exclusive interview with the Spokesman of Jaysh al-Islam, Islam Alloush
Over 1,000 rebel groups currently operate in Syria, most of them local groups operating in larger coalition. In addition to them, a small number of large rebel factions that operate throughout Syria have been established through a series of complete mergers of rebel groups. One of these groups, probably the second largest Syrian rebel group (second only to Ahrar a-Sham), is Jaysh al-Islam. In this article, I will review this important group. Below the review appears an interview the spokesman of the militia, Colonel Islam Alloush, gave me.
Large military parade of Jaysh al-Islam on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus
In late 2013, over 50 different groups, the most prominent among them the "Division of Islam" (Liwaa' al-Islam) merged to form Jaysh al-Islam. Since then, addition groups merged into the militia and it now counts thousands of fighters in its ranks (a common estimate, of 20,000 fighters, is probably exaggerated). The varied and heavy weaponry in the hands of this organization make it into a serious and powerful guerilla groups.
The first commander of the Army of Islam was Zahran Alloush, the commander of Liwaa' al-Islam. Alloush was one of the dozens of Islamist prisoners released from Sedanaya Prison by the Assad regime during the first months of the peaceful Syrian uprising in 2011. Their release intended to help radicalize the uprising and give credence to the regime's claims, which at the time were still false, that the movement against him is jihadist in nature. Following his release, Alloush established the "Islam Battalion" (Saraya al-Islam), which gradually expanded and was renamed into the "Islam Brigade." Zahran Alloush was killed in a Russian airstrike on eastern Ghouta in December 2015.
Jaysh al-Islam fighters operating in the southern outskirts of Aleppo, April 2016
The Army of Islam operated throughout Syria, but it is especially dominant in the eastern outskirts of Damascus and in particular the city of Douma. This area, also known as eastern Ghouta, is home to about 400,000 people. The area has been under Assad regime siege since 2013 and is subjected to constant air raids by the regime. In August 2013, the Assad regime attacked these areas, along with the south-western outskirts of the city, with rockets filled with Sarin gas, killing over 1,400 people. As a result of the siege, hundreds of civilians have starved to death. Thanks in part to the might of Jaysh al-Islam, the Assad regime has been unable to significantly advance in the area until April 2016, when rebel infighting broke out. The Assad regime exploited this and occupied about a quarter of the eastern Ghouta pocket, including agricultural fields where residents harvested vegetables and grain, thus slightly alleviating the hunger of the besieged populace.
Protest in eastern Ghouta against the infighting between rebels, May 2016
The ideology of Jaysh al-Islam is a mixture of Salafi Islam, Syrian nationalism and at least in the past, a significant dose of Sunni sectarianism, meaning, hatred of Shia Muslims and Alawis. Zahran Alloush initially called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria but later renounced his previous positions, expressed support for an elected government, boasted about the protection his organization offers to Christians under its rule and even defined the Alawi sect as a victim of the Assad regime.
Similarly to other rebel groups in Syria, the Islam Army is part of the populace and hence is somewhat attentive to its demands. The organization allows civilians to protest against it and at times heeded demands made by the population under its rule. The Islam Army is also extremely hostile toward ISIS and has conducted a ferocious campaign to prevent ISIS from expanding in eastern Ghouta. As a result, ISIS' presence around Damascus has been restricted to two neighborhoods south of Damascus.
Critics of Jaysh al-Islam argue that the organization locks up, forcibly disappears, tortures and assassinates in critics. A local activist in eastern Ghouta told me that he would not dare to speak publicly or write online against the group for fear of being detained. In December 2013, for example, four Syrian human rights activists who lived and operated in Douma were kidnapped. The Islam Army, which rules the city, was the immediate suspect, but its officials deny any involvement in this and other cases of forcible disappearance. Either way, all rebel groups in eastern Ghouta operate similarly – they repress dissent and fight over territory and control of smuggling tunnels, which guarantee a large income to those who control them.
Conversations with locals in eastern Ghouta show that the Islam Army enjoys a leval of public admiration due to its persistent resistance against incursions by ISIS and the Assad regime into areas under its control. Past cases show that any areas that falls under regime control will be punished severely – locals will be executed, others will be detained and tortured, sometimes to death. In addition, the Islam Army finances the activity of several charities such as Adalah and Iqraa', which provide aid to orphans, the poor and handicapped and provide education to the children living in besieged Ghouta.
The Islam Army enjoys Saudi support, apparently from the Saudi state itself. However, the siege over eastern Ghouta forces the organization to acquire weapons in creative way in those areas. Many of their weapons are homemade, while their heavy weaponry including tanks and armed personnel carriers were captured from the Assad regime.
Interview with the Spokesman of Jaysh al-Islam, Captain Islam Alloush
Q: Jaysh al-Islam is a religious group, and yet you’ve signed the Riyadh Accord, the basic tenants of the Higher Negotiating Committee of the Syrian opposition. This statement expresses support for democratic rule that does not discriminate civilians based on religion. Does this part of the statement represent the position of Jaysh al-Islam?
A: Jaysh al-Islam is a Syrian military organization born from the womb of the revolution initiated by the Syrian people. The organization was born to realize the goals and demands of the revolution. The organization is based on the principles of the pure Islam, moderation and distancing from extremism, and calls for the removal of oppression and victory to the oppressed. Therefore, the Army of Islam will support any path chosen by the Syrian people to remove the oppression and despotism.
Q: One of the leaders of the Army of Islam, Muhammad Alloush, is a member of the High Negotiating Committee. What are you hearing from him? Are you optimistic and do you think that negotiations can bring an end to the war in Syria?
A: We are not optimistic, and the reason for that is clear. The “regime” is not interested in a political solution. This is an institution with a securitized and militarized character, which believes only in solutions congruent to its nature. If the regime believed in a political solution, it wouldn’t have initiated the bloody war against the Syrian people to remain in power.
A political solution can be forced on the regime, for example by stopping the Russian and Iranian aid to the regime. However, thus far, the international community has not brought to bear serious pressures on the “regime” that would force it to accept any kind of solution.
Q: Iran, Assad’s patron, will not accept any agreement that will not preserve its influence and the influence of Lebanese Hizbollah in Lebanon. Will the Army of Islam accept and agreement that will satisfy Iran’s desires, for example one that ensures that Iranian weapons will continue to flow to Hizbollah through Syrian territory?
A: The gang that calls itself Hizbollah [The Party of God] is a gang that opposes the freedom that all people yearn to attain, including the Syrian people. We cannot side with those fighting the principle for whose realization we founded the Army of Islam. The Secretary General of Hizbollah publicly declared his hostility and we are not willing to allow the arrival of weapons to his organization. They will use these weapons against people yearning for freedom, sooner of later.
Q: Many activists accuse the Army of Islam of authoritarian conduct, similar to that of the Assad regime. For example, detention without trial and torture of opponents. Is there truth to these reports?
A: I fear that my defense will not enjoy the sympathy of our readers, as they surely assume that I will defend any action, good or bad, carried out by our organization. But I will answer thus: first, these claims are absolutely not true. Second, the situation in Ghouta itself proves the ridiculousness of these accusations of tyranny. There are protests in front of our bases that call for our downfall, and forces of the Army of Islam even come to provide protection to the protests. We also cover the protests in our media outlets.
We acknowledge that this [protests] are a sign for a healthy situation in which mistakes are pointed out and addressed. This is what builds trust between the revolutionaries and creates social cohesion between the supporters of the revolution, both citizens and fighters. The same applies to detention and torture of people opposing us. As for the issue of assassinations, the leadership of the Army of Islam suffered more than anyone else from assassinations in the past two years. We have expressed our full support in the local judicial system established in the area to investigate these cases and expose the parties responsible.
Q: What is the position of the Army of Islam about a peace agreement between Syria and Israel?
A: This issue and other issues related to Syria’s foreign policy will be determined by the organs of the state, which will be established after the victory of the revolution and the Syrian people will choose their representatives freely. We will not be the ones to deprive the Syrian people from making this decision, as the Assad dynasty has done for over forty years.
addendum: Alloush agreed to give me the interview despite my nationality and granted me permission to attribute all the answers he gave to himself. Following the publication of this article in Hebrew, dozens of media outlets in Arabic and Farsi reported on the interview, most of them relying on a translation from the Hebrew, which was itself a translation from Arabic. Pro-regime media outlets such as Hizbollah’s al-Mayadin channel, the pro-Hizbollah paper al-Akhbar and the Assad’s regime press agency SANA reported on the interview, providing a faulty translation to Alloush’s reply regarding peace with Israel. Following a day of negative media coverage, Captain Alloush submitted his resignation from the post of spokesman for the Army of Islam. He moved to a different position within the organization.