Rights groups and experts say a leading commander of a Syrian Islamist armed group who was recently arrested in France was involved in torture and war crimes against civilians in Syria.
Majdi Mustafa Nameh, commonly known as Islam Alloush, was arrested last week in the French city of Marseille on charges related to torture, war crimes and complicity in forced disappearances, according to French news agency AFP.
A former captain in the Syrian army, Alloush had a leading role in establishing Jaysh al-Islam, an extremist rebel group based near the Syrian capital, Damascus. He was the spokesman of the group until 2017.
His arrest came months after several rights groups, including the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), filed a criminal lawsuit against members of Jaysh al-Islam for crimes committed by the rebel group.
"Islam Alloush was also allegedly involved in the forced enlistment of children in the armed group. Several victims also directly incriminate him for kidnapping and torture,” FIDH said in a statement following Alloush’s arrest by French authorities.
In addition to pursuing accountability, rights groups say Alloush’s arrest represents a symbolic significance for human rights organizations that have been trying for years to bring those accused of war crimes to justice
“This is probably the first case in which an armed Syrian opposition leader will be prosecuted in Europe,” said Bassam al-Ahmad, executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice, an advocacy group that documents human rights abuses in Syria.
“This move will give hope to the families of victims, but it will also encourage rights groups to be more effective to document all violations committed by armed groups involved in the Syrian war,” he told VOA.
In 2018, French authorities issued arrest warrants against three high-ranking members of the Syrian government for their role in killing and persecuting civilians in Syria.
“This arrest means that not only Syrian regime officials but also rebel groups could be held accountable for abuses,” Neshtman Khalaf, director of Gav for Relief and Development, a Syrian-French nonprofit organization, told VOA. “What’s more important now is to pursue this case until justice is served.”
Founded in 2011, Jaysh al-Islam was considered one of the main rebel groups that fought forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Largely based in the eastern part of Damascus, the group adhered to a radical Salafist ideology, experts say.
“In the early days of the war, Jaysh al-Islam showed a unique effectiveness in fighting the Assad regime,” said Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist militant groups in Syria. “This group on many occasions seriously threatened the Syrian regime because it was highly organized, but also because of its proximity to the capital.”
At some point during the civil war, Jaysh al-Islam reportedly had more than 20,000 fighters.
The extremist group has been accused of the kidnapping of several prominent human rights activists in 2013.
But with increased support from Russia and Iranian-backed militias, Syrian regime troops were able to oust Jaysh al-Islam and other rebel groups from Damascus in 2018.
While not officially dissolved, Kinno says most of Jaysh al-Islam fighters have either laid down arms or joined other rebel groups in the northwestern part of the country.
Role in receiving funds
Observers say Alloush played a major role in securing financial assistance from regional countries to support his group’s military activities against Syrian government forces.
“Alloush wasn’t only the media face of Jaysh al-Islam,” said Hadeel Oueis, a Syrian journalist who has closely followed the rebel group and its leaders.
“He was very close to the founder of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush. The latter trusted him and heavily relied on him to conduct certain deals that allowed more financial and military support for the group in the early years in Syria’s war,” Oueis said.