ERBIL, Kurdistan Region of Iraq – On Wednesday evening, Omar Alloush, the co-head of Raqqa Civil Council’s Public Relations Committee and a member of the Syrian Democratic Council, was killed with a silenced firearm in his house in Tal Abyad.
Born in 1958, Alloush was married and had three children.
He had recently played an increasingly important role in local politics in northern Syria.
Senior Kurdish officials immediately blamed Turkey, saying Ankara wants to destroy the Kurd-led Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Turkey argues that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are therefore linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state since the 1980s.
On January 20, the day Turkey launched its Operation Olive Branch military incursion against the majority-Kurdish Efrin enclave in Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Later we will, step by step, clear our country up to the Iraqi border from this terror filth that is trying to besiege our country.”
Syrian Kurds say that this, along with threats to take Manbij and other land east of the Euphrates, shows that Turkey is intent on destroying the multi-ethnic federation established by the SDF and YPG in northern Syria, and stopping cooperation between the Americans and Kurds.
“Turkish intelligence assassinated him. He had been developing the relations between Arabs and Kurds and had great influence on improving it. He was a pillar for the democratic nations project,” top Kurdish official Aldar Xelil told The Defense Post.
Sinam Mohamad, the Syrian Democratic Council representative in the United States, told The Defense Post that the assassination was intended to destroy relations between Kurds and Arabs.
“The one who is behind this dirty work is anyone who doesn’t want to have the co-existence of people and brotherhood,” Mohamad said. “Anyone pro-ISIS, who has no respect or value for the will of people.”
“He was an educated man and he was well-qualified to make relations between Arabs and Kurds. He used to work in Damascus, and he knew how to deal with people. He was working on the brotherhood project, knowing it was the only way to get out of the conflict of Syria,” she added.
‘A brave and courageous Syrian who worked tirelessly to support stabilization efforts’
Alloush, a Kurd, played a critical role in setting up civil councils in Tal Abyad, Manbij, Tabqa and Raqqa after ISIS was defeated in each of those cities.
“The assassination of Omar Alloush is a terrible tragedy and a worrying signal. He was a key actor in promoting local reconciliation between Arabs and Kurds in Raqqa,” Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s terrorism and counterterrorism program told The Defense Post.
Houry met Alloush in Syria several times while working on HRW reports.
“Every time I would see him, he would be on the phone putting out fires or responding to local concerns. Whoever killed him is hoping to destabilize the area and incite further strife.”
We strongly condemn killing of Omar Alloush, a brave & senior member of #Raqqa Civil Council who worked tirelessly to support stabilization in ISIS liberated areas of #Syria. We are concerned by this violence on a civilian leader. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) March 15, 2018
A U.S. official told The Defense Post that the U.S. government was aware of Alloush’s death but could not confirm the circumstances.
“We strongly condemn this act of violence against a civilian leader, and are concerned by reports he was murdered. We express our condolences to his family and colleagues. Alloush was a brave and courageous Syrian who worked tirelessly to support stabilization efforts in areas liberated from Daesh,” the official said.
“His exhaustive efforts on behalf of civilians in Raqqa province resulted in considerable progress clearing Daesh IEDs, re-opening schools, and allowing Raqqawis to freely return home. As a leader in the RCC’s outreach office, he was instrumental in building bridges between local communities in liberated areas.”
‘He was targeted by those whose only claim to power is terror’
Alloush’s assassination is a huge blow to the U.S.-led Coalition’s stabilization efforts in eastern Syria. I interviewed him many times since the SDF launched the operation to take Manbij in 2016.
I met him again a few weeks ago, and he fiercely criticized Turkey for its attacks on innocent civilians in Efrin.
“The people of northern Syria announced their political project and the people accepted brotherhood, and the people of northern Syria will be one hand, and will not allow Turkey to achieve their projects,” he told me on March 1 in Ain al Issa.
Moreover, he told me off the record that it was possible he might lead a new non-ethnic political party with both Kurds and Arabs to attempt to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.
I chose to report those comments now as I thought the killing of Omar may be related to his plans to establish new party.
His death will send shockwaves through eastern Syria, where the Coalition together with the SDF and local councils is attempting to establish security after ISIS.
“Omar Alloush was a courageous Syrian patriot working to restore life to communities devastated by ISIS,” Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the International coalition against ISIS tweeted on Thursday.
“Like so many Syrians, he was targeted by those whose only claim to power is terror. In his memory, we’ll continue the difficult but vital work of stabilizing liberated areas,” he added.
‘His assassins clearly don’t care about maintaining gains after ISIS’
“Aloush was a critical actor in the outreach to Arabs in SDF-held territory and, importantly, a key cog in how the SDF was integrating more local forces into its military and security structures,” Aaron Stein, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told The Defense Post.
“He also worked well with the Americans committed to stabilizing northeastern Syria and ensuring that ISIS isn’t given some breathing room to return to former strongholds in the lower-ERV [Euphrates River Valley],” he said.
“His assassins clearly don’t care about maintaining gains after ISIS or local Arab-Kurdish relations. They care about sowing chaos. He had a lot of enemies, but his appeal was that he was the outward face of real and legitimate efforts to make the SDF more representative.”
Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said Alloush’s death would leave a big hole in the effort to bring local stability to Raqqa, “a hole that will now need to be filled by the Raqqawi Arab tribal sheikhs who are working with the SDF.”
“Omar Alloush was targeted because he had become the living symbol of the effort to stabilize Raqqa in the wake of ISIS. The enemies of the SDF, whether they were backed by Turkey or by the Assad government, knew that Omar Alloush was the man who gets things done in Raqqa,” Heras told The Defense Post.
“The Coalition has the experience, and most important, the firepower, to protect the Raqqawis who are working with the SDF to build stability in the wake of ISIS. It is time to put that firepower to use to protect the implementers of Raqqa’s stability, while their effort is still in its cradle,” he added.
A spokesperson for the Coalition told The Defense Post that it “will not speculate on who may be responsible for Omar’s death.”
“Despite the loss of Alloush’s leadership, the Coalition will continue to support cooperation between all Syrians on the ground as they work to rebuild their lives, and towards an enduring defeat of ISIS,” the spokesperson said.
“This and other recent attacks highlight the tremendous courage of local leaders trying to bring stability to their homes after the horrors of ISIS.”
So sad to hear of killing of Omar Alloush in Syria. A founding member of Raqqah Civil Council committed to helping people recover from brutality of Da’esh. I greatly enjoyed working with him. His legacy must be stability for the good people of Raqqah @CJTFOIR pic.twitter.com/G0Nb8Gmvk7
— Rupert Jones (@rupertthjones) March 16, 2018
A proxy assassination squad?
Alloush’s murder is not the first time that people working with the Raqqa administration have been targeted.
Like other officials in northern Syria, he maintained a low profile, without taking much care for his own personal security.
“Omar would move around alone. No security whatsoever. I saw him in Raqqa a few weeks after another member of the Raqqa local council had been shot. When I asked him if he was worried given that his profile and role made him a potential target, he just smiled and got back to work,” HRW’s Houry told the Defense Post.
In February, Ibrahim Salama, the lawyer responsible for negotiations between the SDF and Islamic State in Raqqa which led to ISIS fighters leaving the city, was killed by gunmen at his home in Tabqa.
— Raqqa24 (@24Raqqa) February 16, 2018
The most likely suspect is Harakat al-Qiyam. Formed in the second half of 2017, the relatively small armed group is active in SDF-held areas of eastern Aleppo and Raqqa provinces, and has carried out a number of attacks on YPG- and SDF-linked individuals since October. Analysts believe the group is likely backed by Turkey.
— حركة القيام (@syriafree1c) November 3, 2017
In November, the group claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded in a car belonging to Muhammad Abu Adel, the commander of Manbij Military Council. Although injured, Adel survived the attack.
In January, unidentified gunmen attempted to kill Ibrahim Hassan, the head of Raqqa’s Reconstruction Committee, who was shot four times in the back at his home in Tal Abyad.
Earlier this month, Harakat al-Qiyam published a video – said to be the attempt to murder Hassan – in which a pistol fitted with a silencer was used.
“They are basically Turkey’s Syrian proxy assassination squad.” Heras said of the group.
“Ibrahim Hassan is a Turkmen lawyer with a good reputation, which really made Turkey angry. He went twice to Rome,” a Syrian source within the U.S. stabilization effort told The Defense Post.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source suggested Turkey was behind the assassination campaign.
“ISIS doesn’t have the capability for such threat. Turkey especially has influence in Tal Abyad,” the source said, referring to thousands of displaced civilians from Tal Abyad who live in Turkey.
The source said the group had previously targeted poor Arabs who joined the YPG in villages such as Slouk.
“They would go on motorcycles and shoot them with weapons, but this is more serious,” he said. “They are now targeting senior officials. Hassan was treated for two months in Slemani, and he is fine.”
The source said that more similar campaigns were likely.
“We will hear very soon more of such things assassination attempts conducted by Turkey in Manbij, in Tabqa by the regime, and in Deir ar Zour by Iran,” he said.
“This is a decisive blow to the US efforts of stabilization and Aloush was a main pillar of this. If Americans don’t somehow deter Turkey, these things will increase and the efforts for stability will be really undermined.”
— Wladimir (@vvanwilgenburg) March 16, 2018