The Rebel Commander of Damascus

Zahran Alloush, head of the Army of Islam, talks to The Daily Beast about a four-year siege, the future of Syria, and accusations that he’s just another dictator in Islamic garb.

12.15.15 11:12 PM ET

In early 2011, I was a part of a group that staunchly believed in the necessity and urgency to change the status quo in Syria. As a 19-year-old Christian student, full of hopes and dreams, nothing was going to stop me back then from taking the risk of wandering the streets of Aleppo on March 10, 2011, on a very cold night, to distribute fliers calling on the people to protest. I was jailed and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, not once, but three times. I was later forced into exile, to leave my home, family, friends, and hopes back home. 

In 2013, I heard about a new leader, a Salafist preacher and rebel commander, whose existence made me—a secular activist from a confessional minority—an immediate antagonist. He was Zahran Alloush, and his Jaysh al-Islam, or Army of Islam, today controls al-Ghouta, the largest part of the Damascus countryside, which the regime hit with chemical weapons in August 2013, killing 1,400 people in a day. His headquarters are few miles away from Assad’s presidential palace. Alloush fought on many fronts and against many adversaries, including ISIS and the regime. Today, he’s a prominent target of the Russian airstrikes, which tend to hit Army of Islam positions just as Alloush’s forces are battling ISIS. 

Alloush’s conservatism isn’t foreign to the region he controls, but nor has it impinged upon competing traditions of liberalism in the surrounding areas. There are Christian towns in al-Ghouta where churches have been kept unmolested for decades. Muslims and Christians have lived harmoniously in the area, too. Also somewhat distinct from other rebel organizations in Syria, Alloush’s Army of Islam is purely Syrian in composition. There are no foreign fighters in its ranks, no veterans of mujahidin campaigns in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Whatever heroic status he may enjoy among opposition forces, Alloush is also a deeply controversial figure. He stands accused by many of having abducted a great icon of the Syrian uprising, the human-rights campaigner Razan Zaytouneh.

I first thought that interviewing him would be an incredibly hard task, given my politics and religious background. I was wrong. I interviewed Alloush for The Daily Beast recently while he was at his compound in al-Ghouta.

The Daily Beast: How did the Army of Islam emerge? Is it a Syrian army or an Islamic one? What is its banner? And what are your priorities?

Zahran Alloush: Jaysh al-Islam, like other revolutionary forces, emerged after the regime crackdown of the Syrian peaceful protests. It was a must at that time to have tools to protect the population from the regime atrocities by carrying arms and defending them. 

As for the identity—we are Syrians with a revolutionary project. That is why we have always chosen our allies and enemies depending only on their position from the revolution and the regime. 

As for the banner, we have a distinct banner as a faction but it is not a replacement of the Syrian independence flag. It is just a banner that carries our name.

Our priorities are those initial priorities of the revolution. We want to rid our country of all dictatorial and terrorist projects.

TDB: In one of your prior interviews, you said that you do not have any differences with Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda franchise in Syria. You said that your Sharia adviser does not disagree with the Sharia adviser of al Nusra. Does that mean that you have no ideological differences with al Qaeda?

ZA: Back then, I was referring to Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of [al Nusra’s] Sharia advisers. We saw that Qahtani was showing a moderate face and we wanted to encourage those efforts. Now al Nusra has different Sharia advisers, and ours have many disagreements with them, ideologically and intellectually.

TDB: How is your relationship with Ahrar al-Sham, the powerful Salafist rebel group in Syria? Why were you excluded from its new coalition against Assad called the Army of Conquest?

ZA: Jaysh al-Islam stands alongside Ahrar al-Sham and all revolutionary forces that fight Assad and refuses ISIS’s takfiri mentality. You should ask them this question. We have heard that one component of the army which has ties with ISIS is the one that lobbied against us.

TDB: Why does Jaysh al-Islam have many enemies on opposite sides such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and secular opposition figures?

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ZA: In general, Jaysh al-Islam does not have objections or sensitivity to criticism. On the contrary, we reach out to all those who have the expertise and comprehensive vision to evaluate us and offer advice. However, we are always subject to distortion by some people simply because we cannot satisfy everybody. There are always people who hate what we do and feel that their personal interests are not served and they will continue to criticize us anyway. We think that we have to continue work rather than waste time on propaganda and anti-propaganda.

TDB: Do you think you have been wrongly accused of kidnapping Razan Zaytouneh and have you arrested those who kidnapped her? 

ZA: The case of Razan Zaytouneh has been used to demonize Jaysh al-Islam by many sides. Most people do not know that Jaysh al-Islam facilitated Zaytouneh’s entrance into eastern Ghouta through the martyr Mohamed Adas, manager of the office of [Syrian regime] defectors in Jaysh al-Islam. We offered to protect Zaytouneh because many sides might be upset by her work, but she preferred to work independently. Why would we bring her in and then kidnap her? It is illogical. As for the arrest of those who kidnapped her, this is also not true. When we figure out who the kidnappers are, they will immediately appear in court.

TDB: Do you apply Sharia law in the areas you control? What are your views on democracy and the future of Syria?

ZA: Jaysh al-Islam does not intervene in the judiciary body in our areas. We have representatives in the judiciary councils. The judiciary councils include many sheikhs and jurists who represent the diversity of our community. We believe in the rule of institutions.

When I criticized democracy, I was referring to the manipulation of people through lies covered by attractive colors. The democracy of Assad, the pluralism of the Baath, and the Islamism of ISIS are a few examples. The Western double standards are also applied to democracy. While democracy is used to serve people’s interests in the West, democracy is manipulated in our countries to bring villains to rule as agents for outside powers. We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represent the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims.

TDB: Erbin, a town in Ghouta, includes many Christians. How do you treat the Christians in your area? Is it true that the Christians prefer Assad to the rule of the opposition?

ZA: The Christians have been living in Syria for hundreds of years and they have contributed to the enlightenment of Syria. The Syrian revolution core was the freedom and equality of all Syrians regardless to their religion. The regime of Assad is the main contributor to the misery of the Christians. The regime of Assad has enforced many restrictions on the Syrian Christians, and forced many of them to leave and to close their businesses due to Assad’s so-called social economic policy. 

TDB: You’ve been under siege for around four years. How are you providing services to people in your areas? 

ZA: Assad uses starvation and siege because he thinks he’ll win the war this way. We have in Ghouta some resources like water and agriculture; we have professionals in many fields from the citizens of Ghouta. We try to be creative in terms of providing the main needs for the people and this is not the effort of our army by itself but the efforts of the Ghouta people in general. Our people still suffer from a severe lack of very basic needs due to the tough siege. This takes place, unfortunately, before the eyes of the world’s institutions that carry humanitarian logos.

TDB: Why do many people call you a dictator? And what is the reason behind the demonstrations against you?

ZA: Dictatorship indicates that I am forcing people to accept and apply someone’s ideas. In Ghouta we witness a lot of social and political activities. People protest, write, and meet freely. We also protect the demonstrations against Jaysh al-Islam and accept the other point of view. East Ghouta is by far the most secure liberated area for activists and ordinary people. Media are always welcome to cover the situation in our area. Many people criticize me and they live safely in Eastern Ghouta. Many people suffer from the repercussions of war and siege and they protest against the groups that control the smuggling tunnels, yet everyone knows that we do not control any.  

Some demonstrations against Jaysh al-Islam were organized by family members of ISIS prisoners demanding their release. No country in the world would release criminals under the pressure of protests.

TDB: Unlike many areas of Syria, ISIS was not able to recruit or control any area in Ghouta. Why is that?

ZA: Although most of the people in our area are conservative, they aren’t radical. We have many Muslim scholars who belong to civic and moderate schools of religion. People of Ghouta are fortified from radicalization due to these facts. 

When we liberated Ghouta from the criminal regime of Assad, and the people were mourning their loved ones who were killed by Assad, radicalization was contained by Jaysh al-Islam because we have local Islamic scholars who relentlessly educated our young men and women and told them that this is not the answer for Assad’s brutality. 

TDB: You fought ISIS in Ghouta, Qalamoun [a southern district in the Damascus region], and in northern Syria. You lost many of your men in the war against ISIS. But Western countries still do not back you or include you in any arming project. Why?

ZA: ISIS does not belong to the Syrian revolution. Assad has exploited this organization at the most critical time when it was about to fall. Despite the involvement of foreign Shia militias, Assad was in a very weak condition when ISIS appeared to save his regime. It started assassinating revolutionary commanders and attacking Free Syrian Army groups rather than fighting Assad. ISIS accused the Syrian people of being infidels and created big trouble inside liberated areas. A few months later, they waged an all-out war against revolutionary forces.

We think that the West was happy to see ISIS in the region, especially those who evaded the moral obligations to stand by the Syrian people after Assad crossed all the red lines and used chemical weapons.

The West intervened after ISIS took control of Mosul in Iraq. We fought ISIS early on when we discovered their deviation from Islam and the danger they pose to our revolution and people. The West knows well that Jaysh al-Islam and other revolutionary forces are not terrorist, but the wish to reproduce the regime may affect its designation policy.

TDB: What do you think of the United States? Do you believe that it can help solve the Syria crisis?

ZA: America is a powerful country and it can play a major role to end the Syrian conflict if it wants. But the current administration refuses to play this role and acts with cold blood when it comes to Syria. It has failed to respond effectively to Assad’s massacres and we saw that obviously when Assad crossed the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. America was able to stop the chemical attacks, but it didn’t care. 

When America demanded Assad to pull his army out of Lebanon, Assad had to do that in few days, though being in Lebanon was very essential and important for his regime. Even if the administration didn’t want to intervene directly, it is still able to support the real revolutionary groups which are capable of toppling Assad and at the same time defeating ISIS. Instead, it is promoting weak groups and supporting them just to say, ‘We are doing something for Syria.’

TDB: Are you concerned about the Russian intervention in Syria? 

ZA: Russia has always supported Assad politically and supplied him with weapons. The intervention now will cause more destruction and death for the Syrian people but we know from history that foreign occupations always lose at the end. 

We think that this intervention is the result of the regime’s failure in the war with the revolution despite all the regional support. Shortly before the intervention the regime suffered huge losses in Idlib and Damascus. These defeats caused a collapse in morale among the regime’s supporters, and it prompted the Russians to get involved.

TDB: Is the Russian air force targeting Jaysh al-Islam? And will you cooperate with Russia if it restricts its targets to ISIS?

ZA: Russia bombed Jaysh al-Islam positions for a time, and then stopped. We do not need their help in the fight against ISIS.

TDB: You control areas near the Israeli border. Do you have any agenda regarding Israel or the Israel-Palestine conflict?

ZA: These issues along with other foreign policy issues should be tackled by the future Syrian government, which has to be formed after the removal of the Assad regime and has to stick to our people’s principled stances. 

TBD: Do you support the exportation of jihad and acts of violence in the West?

ZA: 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. We condemn acts of violence all over the world regardless of who commits them and who are the victims.

TDB: We have seen you going to Turkey though Ghouta is under siege. Is it true that you arrange that with the regime?

ZA: If I and other revolutionary factions leaders arrange our movements with the regime when we get in and out of besieged areas, then who is fighting the regime on the ground? Who is defending the liberated territories? Who is killing the regime’s soldiers every day? If we are coordinating with the regime, why is it besieging our areas and bombing us? 

These rumors are released by ISIS to defame Jaysh al-Islam, but it is unacceptable to hear them from sane people. Of course, we won’t tell anybody about the secret routes we take to get out of besieged areas because this is what they want. We can’t reveal how we move from the north to the south of the country to get captured and killed by ISIS. Our fight on the ground and our martyred fighters and commanders as well as the death of thousands of regime mercenaries at the walls of Ghouta are the strongest proofs of our sincerity. 

TDB: Ghouta has lost the biggest numbers of people because of regime attacks. You eliminated ISIS there and prevented Assad from regaining it and your fighters are all Syrians. Do you think that Ghouta can be a safe zone for people and refugees to come back to? And what do you need to achieve that?

ZA: Ghouta rebels, like other Syrian rebels, need the international community to first impose a no-fly zone to prevent Assad’s warplanes and helicopters from striking populations; second, it needs to break the siege of Ghouta and allow food and medicine into the area. 

We are not deluded into thinking that this will happen tomorrow. It rather requires efforts from different sides and an international cover. These are the two things that the world can offer today to atone for its silence.

TDB: The ISIS attacks in Paris reflected the group’s ability to threaten an internationally powerful country. You have warned of ISIS’s threat earlier when it was attacking only the Syrian people. Are you ready to cooperate with France and Arab countries against ISIS?

ZA: We have fought ISIS and were able to wipe it out in areas like Ghouta and Barzeh. We also cooperated with other revolutionary forces to fight ISIS in Qalamoun and in the north without any outside support. Nonetheless, we are ready to cooperate with any party ready to help our people in its struggle for their rights.