The head of one of Syria's most powerful rebel groups has been killed in an airstrike east of Damascus.
Syrian rebels and the government said Friday that Zahran Alloush, founder of the Army of Islam, was killed in a raid that targeted the group's headquarters in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus.
Alloush's death is a significant blow to the armed opposition, bolstering President Bashar al-Assad ahead of new peace talks scheduled for early 2016.
The strike, which also killed other senior members of the group, came days after the United Nations passed a resolution endorsing a path to peace in Syria.
The Army of Islam was to have participated in that process. But it is regarded by the Syrian government and its most powerful ally, Russia, as a sectarian terrorist group that differs little from more extremist groups like the Islamic State.
Unconfirmed initial reports suggested Russian planes carried out the airstrike that killed Alloush.
Alloush, who was in his mid-40s and had studied Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, was released from a Syrian prison in 2011 as part of an amnesty and then joined the revolt against the government.
His group defended an area that has faced repeated and indiscriminate air raids by the government. His forces, in turn, have fired indiscriminate mortar salvos at areas in Damascus, killing and wounding scores of civilians.
Although Alloush’s forces have battled extremist groups such as the Islamic State, he also had issued statements that appeared sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria and al-Qaida's late leader, Osama bin Laden.
Army of Islam
In a recent interview with The Daily Beast, a U.S.-based news and opinion website, Alloush distanced himself from Jabhat al-Nusra, claiming he supported only Abu Maria al-Qahtani, one of al-Nusra’s Sharia advisers. "We saw that Qahtani was showing a moderate face and we wanted to encourage those efforts," he said. "Now al-Nusra has different Sharia advisers, and ours have many disagreements with them, ideologically and intellectually."
Despite the name of his organization, Alloush denied the group wants to spread Sharia in its areas of control. But he had plenty of criticism about democracy.
"The democracy of Assad, the pluralism of the Baath and the Islamism of ISIS are a few examples. The Western double standards are also applied to democracy. While democracy is used to serve people’s interests in the West, democracy is manipulated in our countries to bring villains to rule as agents for outside powers," he said.
"We believe that the future of Syria after Assad should be governed by a technocratic body which has the skills and the qualifications. We do not believe that Syria should be ruled by sectarian or partisan rule, but by a technocratic body that represents the diversity of the Syrian people. We do not see ourselves as Islamic. We are Muslims."
Alloush was also critical of the policies of the Obama administration toward the Syrian crisis.
"America is a powerful country and it can play a major role to end the Syrian conflict if it wants," he said. "But the current administration refuses to play this role and acts with cold blood when it comes to Syria. It has failed to respond effectively to Assad’s massacres, and we saw that obviously when Assad crossed the 'red line' on the use of chemical weapons. America was able to stop the chemical attacks, but it didn’t care.
"Even if the administration didn’t want to intervene directly, it is still able to support the real revolutionary groups which are capable of toppling Assad and at the same time defeating ISIS. Instead, it is promoting weak groups and supporting them just to say, ‘We are doing something for Syria.' "
This week, the United Nations announced that it would hold peace talks in Geneva early next year.
Geneva was the site of two rounds of U.N.-brokered peace talks early last year between Assad's government and rebels who have been fighting him since March 2011.
Those negotiations ended with little progress, and momentum for a peace deal evaporated while the conflict became more complex with the addition of Islamic State militants seizing large portions of eastern Syria. But in recent months, the push for peace has been renewed, including several international meetings bringing together world powers with a commitment to get the warring sides talking again.
Diplomats such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have promoted ending the civil war as the most important step in defeating Islamic State fighters and bringing stability to the region.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution last week expressing support for a Syrian-led political process, facilitated by the U.N., with the goal of establishing a transitional government in six months and holding elections in 18 months.
The conflict has killed more than 250,000 people and forced half the country's population to flee Syria as refugees or move to another part of the country to escape the fighting.
VOA's Chris Hannas contributed to this report.