From the pulpit at a mosque in the besieged Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syrian rebel leader Zahran Alloush denounced democracy last December as a corrupt system and left no doubt that he seeks an Islamic state to succeed the government of President Bashar Assad.
But in his first interview with U.S. news media, Alloush was the model of pragmatism.
Gone were his previous calls to expel members of the ruling Alawite sect from Damascus. In the interview he called them “part of the Syrian people” and said that only those with blood on their hands should be held accountable.
Abandoned, too, was the talk of an Islamic state. Now he said he favored allowing Syrians to decide what sort of state they wanted.
“We want to establish a state in which our rights are fulfilled,” he said, denouncing what he called the “sectarian discrimination” against the Sunni Muslim majority. “After that, the people should choose the sort of state they want.” He said he would favor a “technocratic, professional government.”
Determining the ideology of Syria’s many rebel groups has been a vexing problem for the United States in the four years since the Syrian civil war began. The Obama administration has pledged many times to assist rebels but it’s declined to back Islamists, worrying that their goals are hardly democratic or inclusive. Determining which groups merit backing has been a difficult and fraught process, made worse by seeming changes in ideology.
Asked by McClatchy to explain his change in stance, Alloush said his original statements were due to the pressure he lived under in Ghouta, the scene of a poison gas attack two years ago that killed hundreds.
“We are under siege. We all suffer psychological stress. When I was in prison and the jailer would come and torture prisoners, after he would leave prisoners would quarrel and beat each other,” he said.
His spokesman, Islam Alloush, said the speeches Zahran Alloush had made in Ghouta were for internal consumption, to rally fighters in the face of other, far more radical Islamist forces, such as the Islamic State. “There’s speech for the internal audience and for the external audience,” he said. “The internal speech is devoted to saving our sons from joining the Islamic State.”
Others said it might simply be that radical rebel leaders realized they must change their tune for a Western audience that was repelled by the kind of tough rhetoric that found Alloush condemning democracy in January 2014 as “the dictatorship of the strong” and declaring at the mosque in December, “We denounce democracy completely.” For the Muslim world, he said, democracy has brought only corruption, oppression and backwardness.
Has he changed his views? “That is a very good question,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who’s written about Alloush. Alloush and his staff “are getting much more savvy,” he said, based on Twitter conversations he’s had with the commander’s spokesman.
“Everybody is aware now that the regime is very weak and on the way to collapse,” said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who lives in Washington. “And every major player wants to be acceptable to the West and to the international community.”
“Zahran wants to be on the winning side,” he said.
Landis said Alloush would be there. “He’s going to be a winner,” he said. Alloush’s Army of Islam and other Islamist groups, the “hard-bitten patriotic types . . . will win in the end,” he said.
Presenting a new face may be one reason Alloush traveled to Istanbul, where he was interviewed, and was heading next to Jordan to confer with rebel commanders who operate in southern Syria, as well as their international backers. His fighters need weapons.
“Inside Ghouta, we don’t receive weapons” from outside, he told McClatchy. “All we have are the spoils from attacking the regime.”
Alloush has long been a major player in the anti-Assad movement in Syria. He claims that his Army of Islam has 10,000 fighters in the suburbs of Damascus and another 7,000 scattered elsewhere in Syria.
Recent battlefield gains by rebel forces in northern and southern Syria and growing signs of regime weakness highlight Alloush’s role and the importance of the territory he controls south of the capital. At the same time, he and other rebel leaders are gearing up for what they hope will be the endgame.
That poses a challenge to the U.S. government, which has never backed Islamists and has provided only fitful support to pro-Western rebel forces in Syria. The question now isn’t direct U.S. support but whether Washington will block other countries in the international “Friends of the People of Syria” coalition from assisting Alloush.
With a track record that puts him on any list of effective rebel leaders, Alloush has many wondering whether he’s a dogmatic Islamist or is open to a different outcome from an Islamic state.
The charismatic Alloush, who has a master’s degree in Shariah law from the Islamic University in Medina, Saudi Arabia, and spent two years in a regime jail on suspicion of “religious activity,” said that as leader of a major militia but also a religious scholar, he had to be part of the debate.
“I have the right to discuss. In any discussion, I would express my own views and others theirs,” he said.
In his interview with McClatchy, he adhered to the moderate line: “If we succeed in toppling the regime, we will leave it to the Syrian people to choose the form of state they want,” he said. “As for coexistence with minorities, this has been the situation in Syria for hundreds of years. We are not seeking to impose our power on minorities or to practice oppression against them.”
Another aide said that Alloush, to improve his image, was ready to dispense with the black and white Islamic flag and adopt the Syrian flag used by other rebel forces.
Whatever comes of the shift in his public stance, Alloush doesn’t expect to receive any aid from the U.S. government.
“Frankly speaking, the current administration is a hindrance to the Syrian people,” he said. “It prevents it from getting its freedom.”
He charged the U.S. with maintaining a “double standard” – ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein under the pretext that he had chemical weapons while not punishing Assad even after he’d used chemical weapons. He also said the U.S. had blocked a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that had been due to come from Libya.
“We have been in contact with them many times,” he said, “but we have reached the conclusion that the current administration doesn’t care about the Syrian people. They see atrocities happening in Syria and do nothing. They don’t allow us to defend ourselves.”
In fact, he said the Army of Islam had been in direct touch with Daniel Rubinstein, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Syria, an assertion the State Department confirmed.
Alloush was especially bitter about the U.S. government sending him a message in February that asked him to halt rocket attacks on Damascus.
The government had bombed the main square in the town of Hamouria after Friday prayers Jan. 23. Alloush said 50 civilians had been killed on the spot and another 33 later died of wounds. He’d responded by attacking security installations in the capital, after tweeting a warning to the population to stay indoors.
The regime retaliated with another bombing of civilians in the most crowded suburbs of the city of Douma, killing more than 100, he said. Alloush then announced that the Army of Islam would target regime bases throughout Damascus.
That’s when he got the “strange” message from the Obama administration to stop bombing security installations in the capital, he said. “In fact, we had no choice,” Alloush said. “We are not bombing civilians. We are focusing on the bases that bomb us.”
Alloush complained that the U.S. government didn’t even condemn the string of government atrocities.
The State Department had been prepared to denounce the Hamouria bombing Jan. 23 along with one in Hasaka province as “appalling” but no reporter raised the question, a department official said. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue.