Rebel chief death may hurt Syria peace talks, boost Islamic State, claim analysts

By Rouba El Husseini and Maya Gebeily ,AFP

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The killing of Syrian rebel chief Zahran Alloush, fiercely opposed to both the regime and the Islamic State group, has eliminated a key bulwark against the jihadists and could derail U.N.-brokered peace talks, analysts say. The head of Jaish al-Islam, the foremost rebel group in Damascus province, was killed on Friday in an airstrike claimed by Syria’s government. Jaish al-Islam has fought off both government forces and IS jihadists in its Eastern Ghouta bastion, east of the capital.

It even recently agreed to eventual peace talks with the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

But with Alloush gone, that centralizing force has vanished, says Andrew Tabler, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“He occupied a space between the extremists and the Free Syrian Army, which was important to hold off the spread of IS in the short term and unify the rebels vis-a-vis the regime in the long term,” says Tabler. Without him, Islamist fighters could lean toward further radicalization and join jihadist groups, Tabler adds. Despite Alloush’s ferocious opposition to IS, Syria’s regime and its media consistently referred to him and to Jaish al-Islam as “terrorists.”

Syria’s army command did so again in the statement claiming responsibility for his death.

Damascus has used the term for all its opponents — including U.S.-backed rebels — since the conflict erupted in 2011.

It has strived to present itself globally as a legitimate government fighting jihadist groups across the country. ‘Severe blow’ to Talks Alloush’s death is “a major blow to the rebels,” says Karim Bitar of the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. “It might temporarily help the regime, as his disappearance reinforces the binary Assad-versus-Daesh dichotomy,” Bitar tells AFP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

It could also thwart potential peace talks between the regime and the opposition, which the U.N. announced could begin in less than one month.