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The Death of Abdelqader Saleh

A spokesperson for the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Command just confirmed to me that Abdelqader Saleh, the military leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, is dead.

Written by Aron Lund Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Saleh was one of the commanders hit in an air strike a few days ago, or more likely a series of strikes. Three of the Tawhid Brigade’s “division commanders” (qaid firqa) were reportedly killed at the same time, and the political leader Abdelaziz Salame was injured. Salame then appeared in a film shot at the hospital, and seemed to be in reasonably good condition (for someone just hit by a missile).

Saleh, on the other hand, was never shown on tape. He was reported to be under hospital care in Turkey. In his sickbed video, Salame repeated that Saleh was alive and in splendid health. But apparently things were much more severe than Tawhid wanted to let on, and Saleh is now reported dead, at age 33. When he passed away remains unclear – immediately or after hospital care? – but according to this article on Aks al-Sir, he has already been buried in his hometown, Marea.

Who was Abdelqader Saleh?

Abdelqader Saleh’s death is big news. He was one of the founders of the Tawhid Brigade in July 2012, when the group came together from a constellation of local units in the northern Syrian countryside to charge into Aleppo. The core of the group was a number of commanders from Anadan (including Abdelaziz Salame and Abu Tawfiq), Marea (Saleh), Aazaz and other places. Many, including Saleh, had a background as participants in the peaceful protests against Assad, but by the time of Tawhid’s creation all of them had grown into important local military leaders.

Several of these founding leaders used noms de guerre on a theme of “Hajji so-and-so”, to signal which town they led, or claimed to lead. So Abdelaziz Salame became Hajji Anadan, and Saleh himself was Hajji Marea. He was still affectionately called that by his supporters.

As a charismatic leader who led from the front, he was often seen in news broadcasts discussing tactics with his fighters as gunfire crackled from just down the street, and was a hugely important figure in the Aleppo insurgency. His background was not in politics, and contrary to recurrent rumors, he had not spent time in Seidnaia Prison among many other Islamists, and neither had he fought in Iraq.

A Tawhid spokesperson has claimed that Saleh had in fact been opposed to fighters travelling to Iraq to fight the Americans, and tried to discourage young men from doing so, despite his own opposition to the US occupation. He was a trader, and according to some rumors, he sold considerable family assets at the start of the uprising in order to finance his brigade in Marea.

Politically he was – or became – an Islamist, who made no bones about seeking sharia law in Syria. But he was clearly not part of the radical fundamentalist camp. He avoided the minority baiting common among hardline salafis, and signalled that he wanted Syria’s future to be decided in elections, although he sought some form of Islamic framework for those elections.

He worked well with Western and Gulf financiers, and his group clearly enjoyed some form of international backing. It was a charter member of the Supreme Military Command (which is the most recent incarnation of the Free Syrian Army). Abdelqader Saleh himself was part of its official command structure, holding the inconspicuous-sounding post of assistant deputy commander of the northern region. At the same time, he held close to local Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, and even Jabhat al-Nusra.

Tawhid recently signed on to the Sept. 24 statement denouncing the National Coalition exiles, and calling for an internal rebel leadership. In line with this centrist-Islamist orientation, and also to protect its own financial interests, the Tawhid Brigade had also made a half-hearted effort to broker a deal that would stop the Islamic State’s takeover of Aazaz; Tawhid held a 50% stake in the nearby Bab al-Salama border crossing.

But while Tawhid’s relations to the Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were clearly deteriorating, there had never been any serious fighting between the two groups, and both sides tried to downplay the risk of conflict.

This is an edited version of a post that first appeared at Syria Comment.

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