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Top Damascus rebel in Turkey
amid regional moves

Although the Army of Islam said their leader visited Istanbul to discuss lifting the siege of Eastern Ghouta, reports indicated that his trip carried far greater significance.

Zahran Alloush (C) in Istanbul. (Twitter)

BEIRUT – The leader of the most powerful rebel group operating around Damascus has visited Istanbul in a trip that reportedly comes within intensified regional efforts to escalate anti-Assad military action.

 

Images circulated social media on Friday showing Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush meeting in the Turkish city with Karim Rajeh and Osama al-Rifai, both influential Syrian clerics who support the Western-backed Syrian opposition and Free Syrian Army.

 

Both pro-opposition and regime-affiliated news outlets reported on the eyebrow-raising trip, while a top FSA official cheered on Alloush, whose Islamist rebel group controls large swathes of the besieged Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

 

“The commander of the Army of Islam reached Istanbul from the besieged Ghouta while Bashar al-Assad has been locked in his palace for the past four years and does not dare leave the country,” FSA legal advisor Osama Abu Zeid wrote on Twitter.

 

Regional dimensions

 

Although the Army of Islam said that their leader visited Istanbul to discuss lifting the siege of Eastern Ghouta, reports indicated that his trip carried far greater significance as top regional powers opposed to the Assad regime have worked to unify their efforts.

 

“[Alloush] will hold meetings with rebels and other personalities, and their goal is to lift the siege on civilians in the Ghouta and southern Damascus,” Army of Islam spokesperson Islam Alloush told Alaraby Aljadeed.

 

Meanwhile, the director of the Suria Mubasher network told­ the London-based daily that Alloush had made the visit to attend the Sham Khotaba Association’s ceremony and meet with the most important Muslim scholars to have defected from the Assad regime.

 

However, sources within the opposition Syrian National Coalition linked Alloush’s trip to behind-the-scenes regional developments.

 

The sources told Araby Aljadeed that the rebel commander’s Istanbul junket was connected to “SNC chief Khaled Khoja’s secret visit two weeks ago to Saudi Arabia at the [Kingdom’s] request.”

 

“Alloush’s meeting with the religious leaders, was [convened] so that the latter could play an intermediary role in preparing for the new period.”

 

In recent weeks, regional powers opposed to Damascus have moved to unify their efforts against the Assad regime, after years of divisions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reflected themselves in splits between rebels in Syria.

 

The Huffington Post reported on April 12 that Saudi Arabia was in “high-level talks” with Turkey, brokered by Qatar, to bolster the non-jihadist opposition in Syria by the deployment of Saudi air strikes combined with Turkish ground troops on northern Syrian soil.

 

Pro-Syrian regime daily Al-Akhbar said Monday that a regional agreement was especially likely “as a number of reports have spoken of a new phase of coordination between the Saudi and Turkish players.”

 

“Some kind of ‘dish’ is being prepared in the regional kitchens, and Alloush is one of the ingredients.”

 

Unifying rebel ranks

 

Alloush’s Istanbul visit also reportedly comes within the framework of regional efforts to unify rebel ranks in Syria and reorganize insurgent operations in the Damascus area.

 

When asked about the Alloush trip, sources within the SNC told Alaraby Aljadeed over the weekend that the opposition group had “discussed the subject of communicating with military leadership inside [Syria] during its [recent] meeting.”

 

“The visit could have been made to apply pressure to [mobilize] the eastern Ghouta [front] against Syrian regime forces and ISIS.”

 

As Alloush visited Turkey, his rebel group on Thursday along with the FSA’s First Brigade launched a battle against ISIS encroachment in northeastern Damascus, routing the militants over the weekend.

 

Two weeks earlier, the Army of Islam announced that it was taking part in fighting in southern Damascus’s Yarmouk after ISIS fighters stormed the Palestinian refugee camp.

 

The political bureau chief of the Army of Islam said that Alloush’s Turkey trip “was [intended] to [help] unify rebel efforts on all of Syrian territory, not only in the Damascus suburbs,” according to As-Safir newspaper.

 

Meanwhile, Al-Akhbar cited a rebel source as saying that “Alloush is not the only leader in Turkey at the moment.”

 

“Most well-known leaders have arrived or are about to arrive, in preparation for a series of meetings in which [former FSA chief] Salim Idriss and other military [figures] will take part.”

 

The road from Damascus

 

The route Alloush took out of the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus to Turkey remains shrouded in mystery.

 

The official spokesperson of the Army of Islam refused to comment on how the group’s leader had managed to leave the besieged region.

 

Meanwhile, the director of the pro-opposition Syria Mubasher network told Alaraby Aljadeed that Alloush “embarked on a grueling journey that went on for days, during which he travelled on a military road from Eastern Ghouta to the Syrian-Turkish border in the north.”

 

However, Al-Akhbar wrote that Alloush most likely traveled southward to Jordan before flying out to Istanbul.

 

“The secrecy of Alloush’s movements indicates that he commands an advanced level of security and [has] a trusted inner circle,” the daily wrote, adding that Alloush has made other trips out of Syria in the past, visiting Jordan twice and Saudi Arabia once.

Zahran Alloush (C) in Istanbul. (Twitter)

The commander of the Army of Islam reached Istanbul from the besieged Ghouta while Bashar al-Assad has been locked in his palace for the past four years and does not dare leave the country.