BEIRUT, Dec 27, (AP): Syrian government forces booby trapped a cluster of farm buildings in the southern Daraa province and detonated the explosives as several Islamic rebel factions gathered at the venue, killing 17 militants, opposition activists said Sunday. The explosion, which took place late Saturday, was the latest blow to the rebels shortly after the assassination the previous day of a powerful rebel leader on the outskirts of Damascus.
The developments could boost the position of the Damascus government ahead of Syria peace talks in Geneva next month. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the explosion in the village of Kfar Shams. Ahmad al- Masalmeh, a Daraa-based opposition activist, said explosives were planted at the farm and were detonated when the militants had gathered there. “Once the fighters entered the farm, the explosives were detonated, killing 17,” al-Masalmeh said. Syria’s state news agency reported that several fighters of the Islamic Muthana Movement were killed and two of their “dens were demolished at Kfar Shams.” In Turkey, gunmen fatally shot Syrian activist Naji al-Jarf as he walked in a street in the southern city of Gaziantep, according to the Observatory and the Syrian opposition’s Shaam Network news group. Al-Jarf was the editor-in-chief of pro-opposition Hinta Magazine, according to Shaam Network.
The Observatory’s chief, Rami Abdurrahman, said al-Jarf was killed with a pistol outfitted with a silencer, adding that the motive for the killing was unknown. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the slaying. In October, the Islamic State group said it was behind the killing of two opposition activists in the southern Turkish city of Sanliurfa. The identities of the Islamic fighters killed in the farm explosion were not immediately known and it was not clear if they all belonged to the Muthana Movement or other factions. The movement itself is a relatively minor Daraa-based group of Islamic insurgents.
The area where the attack occurred is in a triangle that links Damascus suburbs with the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra. The village itself is known to house many chicken farms, which supply large parts of Syria with eggs and the attack apparently took place in one of the chicken farms. During past months, the area has been the scene of intense clashes that have pitted Syrian troops and their allies from the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group against an array of Islamic insurgent groups, including the Muthana Movement.
President Bashar Assad’s forces have been on a major push since Russia began its air campaign in Syria on Sept 30. Syrian troops and allied militiamen have launched ground offensives in different parts of the country, including areas near the capital, Damascus. On Friday, Zahran Allouch, the leader of the powerful rebel Army of Islam, was killed in an airstrike that targeted the group’s headquarters during a meeting. A number of senior commanders of the Army of Islam and those of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman groups were also killed.
The Syrian army claimed responsibility for the airstrike that killed Allouch, although many among the opposition blamed Russia, which has been bombing IS targets and other insurgent groups. Allouch’s death was cheered by government supporters and the rival Islamic State — a reflection of his role in fighting both sides in the Syrian civil war. His death may have contributed — at least partially — to a delay in an agreedon pullout of thousands of militants and their families from neighborhoods on the southern edge of Damascus. Khaled Abdul-Majid, a Damascusbased Palestinian official, said in a statement Sunday that the agreement had stumbled following Allouch’s killing. Buses that were to transport the fighters from Yarmouk were supposed to pass through Army of Islam-controlled Beir al-Qassab area in the southeastern countryside of Damascus. The pullout, supposed to start on Saturday, was to involve mainly militants from the Islamic State group who earlier this year overran the Yarmouk area, which is home to a Palestinian refugee camp and has been hotly contested and fought-over in the war, and two adjacent neighborhoods. Meanwhile, with Syrian peace talks scheduled to begin next month in Geneva, the assassination last week of a top Syrian rebel commander could alter the balance of power and reshuffle the lineup of key players on the ground battling President Bashar Assad’s government.
On Saturday, the Army of Islam and allied militant groups in Syria mourned the killing of Zahran Alloush, while government supporters and the Islamic State group cheered his death — a reflection of his role in fighting both sides in the Syrian civil war. Allouch was killed in airstrikes that targeted the group’s headquarters during a meeting on Friday. He was instantly killed along with a number of senior commanders of his Army of Islam group and those of the ultraconservative Ahrar al- Sham and the Faylaq al-Rahman groups.
The Syrian army claimed responsibility for the airstrike that killed Allouch, although many among the opposition blamed Russia, which has been bombing IS targets and other insurgent groups since late September. Allouch was a controversial figure in the war and an authoritative rebel leader who commanded thousands of fighters on the doorstep of Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power. His death may have contributed — at least partially — to a delay in an agreed-on pullout of thousands of militants and their families from neighborhoods on the southern edge of Damascus. The pullout, supposed to start on Saturday, was to involve mainly militants from the Islamic State group who earlier this year overran the Yarmouk area, which is home to a Palestinian refugee camp and has been hotly contested and fought-over in the war, and two adjacent neighborhoods.
A Palestinian official in Damascus, Anwar Abdulhadi, told The Associated Press that the withdrawal is being delayed for “logistical reasons.” But Lebanon’s Hezbollah-run TV station Al Manar said that Allouch was a key figure in arranging the rare deal, and that his assassination has delayed its implementation.
The report could not be immediately confirmed by the AP. Allouch’s killing — a month before peace talks are scheduled to begin between the Syrian government and opposition rebel groups — is a blow to insurgents fighting to topple Assad and a boost to government forces who have been bolstered by the Russian military intervention in Syria.
The Army of Islam took part earlier this month in an opposition meeting held in Saudi Arabia during which it agreed to take part in political talks seeking to end the five-year-old conflict scheduled for late January in Geneva. The Syrian government describes the group as “terrorists” and has said it will not negotiate with such factions. The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said Saturday that he has set a Jan 25 target date for the talks in Geneva and said developments on the ground “should not be allowed to derail it.” Anas al-Abdeh, a senior member of the main Western- backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said the assassination “makes a mockery of all talk of a political settlement” and undermines the “negotiations before they begin.” Several opposition groups also mourned Allouch’s death and accused the government and its allies of trying to eliminate rival groups ahead of the talks. Several rebel leaders have been killed since Russia’s aerial campaign started on Sept. 30 in support of ally Assad, although Moscow has insisted that it is concentrating its attacks on Islamic State. “Rebel groups should realize they are facing a war of extermination by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s regime,” said Labib Nahhas, a senior member of the militant rebel Ahrar al-Sham group. Abu Hassan al-Muhajer, another senior member of Ahrar al-Sham, wrote on Twitter that the “next stage will witness the liquidation of those leaders who began the uprising” against Assad. Other insurgents, including the al-Qaeda branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, also lamented the killing.
The Army of Islam swiftly appointed Essam al-Buwaydhani, a field commander known as Abu Hammam, as Allouch’s successor, and posted a video on the Internet late Friday saying Allouch’s killing “will only increase our fight” against Assad’s government and the Islamic State.
However, Aron Lund, a Syria expert, said the death of Allouch, who led the Army of Islam since it was founded around four years ago, could amount to “a decapitation strike” for the group. “Add to that the fact that the Islam Army’s dominance has created so much resentment among other factions over the years, and the situation seems very unstable,” Lund wrote in an analysis for the popular Syria Comment blog.