State: US Has Concerns About Syrian Islamist Group, But Its Leader Supported Political Process And Should Not Have Been Killed

Patrick Goodenough | December 30, 2015 | 12:57am EST
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Zahran Alloush, leader of the Islamist rebel group Jaish al-Islam, was killed in an airstrike in Syria on December 25, 2015. (Screenshot: YouTube)

( – The U.S. has “significant concerns” about a Syrian rebel group whose leader was killed in a Christmas Day airstrike but was troubled by the decision to target someone who had committed himself to efforts to negotiate an end to the civil war, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Tuesday.

Toner told a daily press briefing the death of Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Islamist rebel group Jaish al-Islam, complicates efforts to bring rebel and regime representatives to the negotiating table. Under an initiative of the so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG), talks are scheduled to begin in Geneva on January 25.

It remains unclear whether the Assad regime or its Russian ally was responsible for the airstrike that killed Alloush in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, but Toner said Secretary of State John Kerry had brought up the matter with his Russian counterpart.

He said Kerry in a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “highlighted our concern that the killing of Jaish al-Islam leader Zahran Alloush – who, as I said, was a leader of a group that supported a political process to end the conflict – complicates our efforts to bring about a meaningful political negotiated settlement as well as a nationwide ceasefire.”

Jaish al-Islam took part in a recent meeting of opposition groups hosted by the Saudi government in Riyadh – an initiative backed by the Obama administration in preparation for the talks in Geneva.

Because of its willingness to attend, the administration views it as a potential participant in the negotiations, despite its Islamist outlook.

A reporter pointed out to Toner that Jaish al-Islam’s “manifesto is not really that much different than many of the other extremist groups.”

“It calls for an Islamic caliphate, it calls for shari’a law, it calls for basically non-inclusive kind of governing. So what makes them acceptable to you in any kind of negotiation?” he asked.

“When I spoke about Alloush and Jaish al-Islam, I did say that we do have significant concerns about their philosophy, their beliefs, and as well as their behavior on the battlefield,” Toner replied.

“That said, they did travel to Saudi Arabia. They did participate in this process in good faith and did say that – committed themselves to the political process.”

Members of the ISSG are deeply divided over which groups should take part in the talks – and which should be exempted from an envisaged ceasefire. Toner noted that there was broad agreement that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra were beyond the pale.

But that’s where agreement ends. Efforts to compile a list of groups involved in the Syrian conflict that are considered terrorists – and will thus not be exempt from a ceasefire – have failed to find consensus among the ISSG members.

Among the divisions:

--Turkey does not want the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and affiliated Kurdish groups like the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to be included. For its part the U.S. regards the PKK as a terrorist group, but views the PYD as an effective force in the campaign against ISIS. Russia too is supportive of the PYD.

--Iran was angry to learn that its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, may be included on the terrorist blacklist.  

--Hezbollah is another potential sticking-point. The Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Shi’ite group is a key ally of the Assad regime but is also a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization and reviled by the Sunni Gulf states.

--The Saudis, Qataris and Turks support several of the more powerful Islamist rebel groups fighting in Syria, such as Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, and want them involved in the talks. The Assad regime’s two main allies in the ISSG, Russia and Iran, disagree strongly, while the U.S. has been ambivalent. (Ahrar al-Sham has been fighting against ISIS since at least late 2013, but is also close to al-Nusra.)

Lavrov recently outlined Russia’s criteria, saying groups that have been shelling residential suburbs of Damascus and the Russian Embassy, and those that “disseminate extremist and terrorist ideas,” were unacceptable.

After ISSG foreign ministers met in New York on December 18, Kerry conceded the difficulties in finding agreement on the terrorist blacklist, saying the matter had “stimulated a very vigorous discussion this morning regarding who might or might not qualify as a terrorist.”

It had been impossible to reach “consensus in the time we had,” he added.

Toner on Tuesday acknowledged that the differences remain.

“Some countries, some governments, some of these stakeholders feel very differently about certain groups on this list,” he said. “So trying to build a consensus around that and then ultimately trying to put in place a ceasefire by which all members can be judged, including the regime, by their actions to uphold that ceasefire – so it’s a very complicated, very complex process.”

He said Kerry conveyed to Lavrov that with a nascent political process underway, opposition groups that are willing to take part need to be assured “that they’re not going to be targeted, continually targeted for coming to the table, for offering to be part of that process.”

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