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Syrian captain arrested and charged with war crimes in France

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  • Islam Alloush arrested in France and charged with war crimes.
  • Alloush had been in France on a legally-obtained student visa.
  • He was at one time the spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam.
  • Jaysh Al Islam is one of over a dozen factions involved in the fighting in Syria.

Jaysh al-Islam (“The Army of Islam”), is a coalition of Islamist units involved in the Syrian Civil War. Whether these people are described as rebels, freedom fighters, terrorists, home-defence troops or just thugs will usually depend on the political viewpoint of the viewer. Regardless, they are charged with serious war crimes.

Some background

Liwa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam) was formed in 2011 by its former leader Zahran Alloush as an opposition to both ISIS and the overbearing government that quickly became, in itself, little more than another faction in the fighting. In 2013, the group merged with other defenders in Eastern Ghouta to become Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam), and emerged as a prominent force in the civil war.

They fought against both ISIS and forces under the group claiming to be the Syrian government. They also fought an al-Qaeda affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, which was supported for a while by the USA as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Its founder and leader Zahran Alloush was killed in an air strike that targeted a meeting he was attending in Eastern Ghouta in December 2015.

From 2013 through to early 2018, the army of Islam maintained a strength of more than a division. In December 2015, the man largely responsible for building the force, Zahran Alloush, was killed in an airstrike. Who made the airstrike has been claimed and denied by most of the many countries and factions involved. His death was poorly timed, as he may have been key in creating a lasting peace at the time.

Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are thought to have backed Jaysh al-Islam or the predecessor, Liwa al-Islam. At various times, the army has also probably had help from the UK, France and the USA. (It is hard to be sure who really has supported who over the years: a shipment of arms can be sent to one group because they are fighting another group, only for the group to merge, or split in two. Who ends up with the arms, and how, is anyone’s guess, from the outside. What we can be certain of is that many times more than the value of medical help has been shipped in military weaponry.)

Map of Syria, with muhafazat (districts) named

The Army of Islam has been a target of Russia since 2017, in their campaign to simplify the issue in Syria down to two groups, ISIL (a section of ISIS) and the Syrian government, prior to wiping out ISIL.

For more background on why the war started, see “Why is there civil war in Syria?” on history.com

Human rights and wrongs issues

The Army of Islam has been accused by rights groups of abuses.

Jaysh Al Islam has been regularly accused of committing international crimes against civilian populations who lived under its control, from its inception in 2011 until 2018. They have also been suspected of kidnapping, detaining, and torturing human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamada, co-founder of local coordinating committees – LCC, and their colleagues Samira Al-Khalil, political activist, Nazem Al Hammadi, human rights lawyer. They were kidnapped in December 2013 while they were in the joint offices of VDC and LDSPS in Douma.

The death of their leader in 2015, did nothing to stop to the group’s rule in Eastern Ghouta. Some residents from there say torture and imprisonment without trial routinely occurred in the name of “liberation” and Sharia law.

Islam Alloush. former spokesman for Jaysh Al-Islam

From the outset, the Brigade, then Army, of Islam had a public spokesman known only as Islam Alloush. In June 2017, Islam Allosh posted a statement online, disclosing his real name as Majdi Mustafa Nameh, and that he was resigning as a Captain in, and spokesman for, the Army. He remained committed to victory for the Army, and to democracy for Syria.

Further to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2401, adopted on 28 February 2018, which called for a nationwide ceasefire in Syria for 30 days, Russia seemed to have little difficulty in arranging with Jaysh al-Islam an evacuation of wounded people from eastern Ghouta, an area to the east of Damascus. However, the Syrian Army — a large force commanded by socialist Bashar Hafez al-Assad — continued fighting.

In nine years, the conflict has left nearly 400,000 dead and millions of victims. For all these people, there can be no fragmented justice, at several speeds, on political grounds, or according to the membership of the perpetrators of international crimes in such or such group. In a conflict where the crimes have been – and continue to be – highly documented, the fight against impunity must concern all the parties guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Mazen Darwish, President,
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression

In April 2018, Jaysh al-Islam lost control of eastern Ghouta and is last known (December 2019) to be fighting a coalition of ISIS and Al Queda allies and Turkish forces, in northern Syria, where the USA has recently pulled out. Assad’s forces took over Ghouta, by some reports displacing another 105,000 people.

On 26 June 2019, a triad of watchdog organisations — The Human Rights League of France (LDH), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) — filed a complaint against Jaysh Al Islam, for the crimes committed. They were acting on behalf of four named families and claimed there were around twenty other victims and their families.

The complaint filed in June 2019 follows documentation work carried out by SCM and FIDH over the previous three years on the serious abuses committed by Jaysh al Islam: summary executions, kidnappings, forcible confinements, and the use of torture in a systematic way against men, children and women. The group targeted people suspected of complicity with the anti-democracy forces. Civilians accused of not having a sufficiently rigorous application of Sharia imposed by the group were targeted also, as were members of religious minorities.

The joint work of SCM, FIDH and LDH, alongside Obeida Dabbagh, resulted in the issuance by international investigative judges of international arrest warrants, in October 2018, against three senior officials of the Syrian regime: Ali Mamlouk, Jamil Hassan and Abdel Salam Mahmoud. They are accused of complicity in crimes against humanity, linked to the disappearance, torture and death of two Franco-Syrian nationals: Mazen and Patrick Dabbagh, and of war crimes concerning Abdel Salam Mahmoud. Father and son, they were arrested and then detained in Mezzeh by intelligence agents of the Syrian Air Force in November 2013.

Patrick Baudouin,
Honorary President of FIDH

A French student

According to information collected by SCM and FIDH, ‘Islam Alloush’, born in 1988, former captain of the Syrian Armed Forces, was once at the head of a brigade which was regularly accused of recruiting children. Several victims also directly implicate him for acts of abduction and torture.

Many European countries are understandably concerned about illegal immigrants. It is feared that someone entering illegally may be doing so to harm the country or its citizens.

France gave an Erasmus student visa to Majdi Mustafa Nameh, allowing him to enter the country and travel to any EU destination perfectly legally.

He was He was taken into custody in France’s southern port city of Marseille on 29 January 2020 and indicted two days later for war crimes, torture and enforced disappearances, and complicity in these crimes.

This paves the way for the first judicial investigation into the crimes committed by the Syrian group. LDH claim they brought terror to the rebel areas it controlled, mainly in eastern Ghouta, until it was ejected from there in April 2018.

The indictment of a former senior official of Jaysh Al Islam, after the opening of judicial information or trials targeting members of the Bashar Al Assad regime and the Islamic State, opens a new page in the judgment of the international crimes committed in Syria since 2011.

Michel Tubiana,
Honorary President of the LDH

What seems to be missing from the statements by these organisations is just how it is that an internationally-declared wanted war criminal could come to be living as a student in France for some years. That, too, should be under investigation.

We have no doubt that this judicial information will help to shed light on the serious crimes committed by Jaysh al Islam, as well as on the disappearance of the famous lawyer and human rights activist Razan Zaitouneh, her husband Waël, and their two colleagues. Razan’s peaceful commitment, his righteousness, his values ​​remained emblematic of the hopes brought to its beginnings by the Syrian democratic uprising. It is time for the Syrians to finally know what happened to him.

Clémence Bectarte,
Coordinator of the FIDH Legal Action Group

Civil war is even uglier than most wars. With nearly half a million dead and many millions displaced, quite a few of them permanently so throughout Europe and Africa, most Syrians have more on their mind than a single diplomat, however important he might have been.

Pictured: a Jaish-Al-Islam pickup truck in action as the Syrian Army is fought off in Damascus countryside, c. 2017.

Before Assad, and now

Syria used to be a thriving economy with ancient monuments and beautiful (if hot) countryside. After years of civil war, with ineffectual meddling by countries across the Middle-East, Europe and the USA, it has been devastated. The human wrongs are vast and are not limited to just one faction that is now on the losing side of building a free country. Syria can never be again what it once was but we hope its citizens will one day find peace and freedom.

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