BEIRUT: One of the most prominent and admired Syrian rebel commanders, Abdel-Qader Saleh of the Tawhid Brigade, was eulogized Monday in opposition circles as a “hero” and “martyr” after he succumbed to injuries received in an airstrike last week.
For supporters of the regime of President Bashar Assad, Saleh was a “terrorist” who “destroyed mosques and churches,” and “robbed the factories of Aleppo.”
Meanwhile, the odd voice on social media insisted that Saleh was still alive and was being treated in a hospital in Turkey.
But Saleh’s Tawhid Brigade posted a video statement announcing the death of the group’s military commander, vowing that his death would pose no setback for its struggle to topple Assad’s regime.
“In place of a leader, we have prepared other leaders,” said a spokesman for the Tawhid Brigade, flanked by two dozen members of the moderate Islamist militia.
Saleh, 33, was wounded along with the leader of the Tawhid Brigade, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, in a regime airstrike last week against a rebel position near Aleppo which also killed Tawhid’s intelligence chief, Youssef al-Abbas.
Both survivors were evacuated to Turkey for treatment but Saleh died overnight Monday.
A former cereals merchant, the father of five played a leading role in organizing peaceful demonstrations in his hometown of Mareh in Aleppo province during the early months of the uprising.
When the regime pursued an iron-fist policy against demonstrators, he formed a local militia for Mareh and later became a leader in the Tawhid Brigade, which took shape last year.
While Saleh’s personal reputation as a rebel leader was largely positive in opposition circles, his Tawhid Brigade has been accused of a number of transgressions, most famously the plundering of Aleppo-area factories.
According to opposition circles, the equipment and supplies from the facilities were looted and shipped to Turkey as the military uprising gained steam and the regime lost control over areas around Aleppo, with the Tawhid Brigade accused of playing a central role in the affair.
Some opposition sources argue that Saleh was devoted to the military activities of Tawhid and that other individuals were likely responsible for the looting of Aleppo’s dynamic industrial sector.
Regime supporters, meanwhile, blame Saleh and his brigade for the mass destruction that befell Syria’s most populous city, after Tawhid and other groups launched the 2012 offensive that ended up dividing Aleppo into government- and rebel-held sections.
Tall, thin and charismatic, the soft-spoken Saleh spoke regularly to the media and appeared on many occasions in videos posted on YouTube.
His final appearance, fittingly, saw him on the front lines southeast of Aleppo, exhorting his comrades to hold out against a fierce government offensive. In the footage, and against the thunder of nearby gunfire, Saleh encourages the fighters to avoid focusing on the question of how well-armed they are, since the Aleppo offensive of 2012 took place under similar, or worse, conditions for the rebels.
Pro-opposition media said fears were on the rise that Col. Abdel-Jabbar Ukaidi, another prominent Aleppo rebel commander who resigned his leadership post earlier this month, would be targeted by the regime.
Ukaidi and Saleh won the admiration of wide segments of opposition supporters this summer when they traveled to the rebel-held town of Qusair, near Lebanon’s border, as it faced a concerted onslaught by the regime and its paramilitary allies.
Although Qusair eventually fell to the regime, the two rebel commanders were photographed sleeping around a campfire. The images circulated on social media as the most dramatic image of the split in Syria’s uprising – between the “hotel” politicians of the opposition-in exile, and the military defectors and others busy leading the fight against the regime on a daily basis under harsh conditions.
Saleh vowed repeatedly that he wanted to return to civilian life after toppling the regime. He was the second prominent commander from Tawhid to be killed in battle, after last year’s death of a defected colonel, Youssef Jader, known as “Abu Furat,” also famous for eschewing sectarian hatred and focusing on the military struggle against the regime.
Aron Lund, a researcher who follows Syria’s rebel groups, described Saleh’s death as “very bad news for the opposition,” particularly as the uneasy coalition of rebel groups confronts the regime’s campaign south of Aleppo.
“Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing subunits and fighters to other groups,” Lund said in a post on the Syria Comment blog of Joshua Landis.
The group’s future, he continued, would likely hinge on the actions of its leader Salameh, who is recovering from his wounds.
“Having [Salameh] alive gives Tawhid a certain political and institutional continuity at the moment, which it could certainly use.”
Earlier this year, Tawhid and other Islamist brigades rejected the leadership of the opposition-in-exile National Coalition, but the group Monday expressed its remorse over the news of Saleh’s death, calling him “a living symbol in the hearts of Syrians.”
Some opposition figures blamed Saleh and other rebel leaders in moderate Islamist groups for not doing more to counter the influence of hard-line jihadists such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Opposition sources said Saleh enjoyed generally good relations with Nusra but more troubled ties with ISIS, whose militants have sparked outrage among both mainstream civilian activists as well as Islamists of various orientations.
Ukaidi spoke with difficulty about the loss of his comrade, vowing on Al-Jazeera television that Saleh’s death would only “make us more determined to topple the regime.”
Tawhid announces Saleh’s death
Saleh speaks on the front lines near Aleppo