Middle East

Syria's 'Army of Islam' Says It Wants No War With Israel

The leader of a major Islamist militia says the enemy is Assad, not the Zionists.

Army of one, for Allah.

Photographer: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

There was a time when you could count on hard-core Sunni Islamists in the Middle East to be reliably opposed to the existence of the Jewish state. Organizations ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda disagreed on everything from jurisprudence to short-term strategy, but when it came to Israel there was consensus.

The slaughter in Syria is changing that. Take, for example, Jaish al-Islam, a Syrian coalition of rebels whose name translates conveniently to "Army of Islam." Mohammed Alloush, the political leader of the group, Wednesday told me his fighters did not seek war with Israel.

"We have no intention to make war against anyone except for the Syrian regime," he said. "If we compare all the killing in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian regime has committed many more crimes than the whole conflict. Our aim now is to get rid of the Syrian regime," he said.  

Alloush went further. He said President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, the Iran-supported Lebanese militia backing the Syrian government, have exploited the issue of Palestinians to support their war. "The regime and Hezbollah use the Israel conflict to recruit supporters and build armies and all of these armies are used to kill us, to starve us," he said.

This is significant for a few reasons. To start, Alloush is saying something out in the open that many Sunni Arab governments are saying in private. Israel has enhanced its diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states during Barack Obama's presidency, as America's traditional allies fear the U.S. is seeking a new partnership with their archrival, Iran.  

Alloush's statements also show that Israel has purchased some goodwill among the Syrian opposition. Israel operates a field hospital on its side of the Syrian border for many Syrian rebels, including at times members of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusrah. Israeli officials have told me that they do not expect much intelligence value from the hospital, and Alloush told me he thinks it's an important humanitarian gesture.

All of that said, Alloush is not ready to start selling Israel bonds. Like Saudi Arabia, which has supported Jaish al-Islam, Alloush is not giving up on the Palestinians. He told me that he supports the U.N. resolutions that call for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and Golan Heights. A spokesman for Jaish al-Islam stepped down under pressure last month after he spoke to an Israeli think tank.

Alloush is an important figure in the Syrian opposition. His group, which is comprised of several smaller Islamist, Salafi and nationalist rebel militias, is a key part of what remains of a respectable opposition. Al-Nusrah and the Islamic State fight Assad as well, but they also conduct terrorist attacks all over the world. Jaish al-Islam does not. What's more, Alloush's organization fights the Islamic State and has kept al-Nusrah out of its territory in and around Damascus.

To be sure, Alloush's organization is not comprised of Jeffersonian democrats. "Jaish al-Islam is one of the more frustrating rebel groups to anatomize in Syria. In every sense but one they are unpalatable to the West," Michael Weiss, co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror," told me. "They have trafficked in murderous sectarian rhetoric and paraded allegedly pro-regime prisoners in cages, purportedly as 'human shields' to forestall airstrikes." The group has also been accused, although they deny it, of kidnapping the human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh.

Charles Lister, a senior scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told me he estimates there are between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters in Jaish al-Islam. Alloush said he has 20,000 fighters. Lister said that since Alloush's brother Zahran was killed, their official rhetoric against Syrian minorities has toned down considerably.

On the issue of Israel, Lister said Alloush was expressing a view he has heard from many Syrian rebels. "Armed groups have been able to take a longer-term perspective," he said. "As far as they are concerned, Assad is the most evil, and anyone who is not supporting Assad is comparatively better. Even Israel, which was seen for so long as the archenemy of Syrians, is considered better than Assad, Russia, Iran or Hezbollah."

This issue has caused a split among pro-Palestinian activists in the West. Some now support a no-fly zone in Syria, a proposal backed for years by interventionists on the left and right. This spring, the activist group Avaaz began a petition to urge Obama to establish such a safe zone. Meanwhile, a major Palestinian militia, the Quds Brigade, has joined the fight in Syria on Assad's side. 

The lack of solidarity from many Palestinians confounds Alloush. Using the language familiar to them, many of whom still keep the keys to homes they fled in the 1948 war of independence, he told me: "It's crazy to think people in a country with 3 million homes destroyed by Bashar al-Assad would want a war with anyone except for Bashar al-Assad."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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