Death of Pragmatic Leader Further Muddles Syrian Rebellion


He was a Syrian rebel commander who led homegrown fighters like himself and had a prescient view of the conflict: a Syrian insurgency with nowhere else to turn, he said nearly a year ago, would tilt toward foreign fighters and Al Qaeda.

By the time a government airstrike caught him in northern Syria last week, even some of his most fervent admirers believed he had become, in some ways, part of that tilt.

The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.

But when he died Thursday of wounds from an airstrike in Aleppo, he and Tawhid were months into a slow decline from the peak of their influence. The extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had edged out Tawhid as the pace-setting group policing the northern province. And as that group’s foreign fighters stepped up kidnappings, public executions and attacks on Tawhid and its rebel allies, Mr. Saleh disappointed some of his comrades by remaining largely silent, trying to mediate the disputes rather than fighting to prevent the atrocities and infighting that have gutted the revolt from within.

Mr. Saleh’s story, much like that of the movement for which he left his life as a seed trader and father of five, unfolded as one of optimism and possibility diverted by war’s disappointments and, it seemed, its moral exigencies and dark alliances.

As foreign fighters and money from extremist Islamists poured into Syria, he seemed to decide that was the direction the war was going and to coast with it. He spoke often, in meetings over the past year with New York Times reporters who also spent time with Tawhid, of Syrian hospitality and a commitment to an open, pluralistic Syria. But he ultimately made accommodations with ISIS that, to some of his allies, were at best disappointing and at worst ugly.

Though he had welcomed journalists and aid workers, when Islamist groups began kidnapping them, even holding hostages at a compound he shared with ISIS in Aleppo, he made no public moves to stop it. He aligned openly with the Nusra Front, a Qaeda-linked group, even as he maintained ties with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, saying he was a moderate Islamist and a pragmatist.

And he did not act to stop ISIS from driving his Free Syrian Army allies, the North Storm brigade, from the crucial border town of Azaz in September — an example of the infighting that has helped recent government advances in Aleppo.

A commander in North Storm said in a telephone interview on Monday that although Mr. Saleh mediated between rebel factions, “had he used his power, position and character in the Azaz incident, things now would have been otherwise.”

The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of criticizing Mr. Saleh, whom he called a “great man,” so soon after his death.

Another North Storm leader said that Tawhid lost five fighters in clashes with ISIS — something Tawhid denies — and that Mr. Saleh stood by and then tried to broker an end to the fight. The leader said Mr. Saleh had explained that a tough stand against ISIS could have endangered Tawhid fighters in ISIS-run areas.

Even so, fighters and government opponents across Syria, those with Islamist and secular views alike, mourned Mr. Saleh on Monday, when Tawhid announced that he had died in a Turkish hospital. It had been concealed, fighters said, to allow his safe burial in his hometown Marea and to preserve morale.

“How are we going to make it to Damascus without you?” a resident of the northern province of Idlib, identifying himself as Najd, wrote on Facebook.

Mohammed al-Hadi, an antigovernment activist, said he was incredulous that Tawhid leaders had met in a place that was a clear target, an infantry school held by rebels near the front lines. “It is an error by Tawhid,” he said in a Skype interview, adding that he feared that with the commander’s death whatever cooperation remained between Islamist and secular rebels would disintegrate.

The lanky Mr. Saleh, often wearing Polo shirts and an infectious smile, was a chatty fixture on the front lines, unfazed by gunfire. He survived a would-be assassin’s bullet and joked about a rumored $200,000 price on his head. He said he participated in peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad and turned to arms after the government crackdown, as Tawhid grew to claim 10,000 fighters and replace its slingshots and hunting rifles with automatic weapons and tanks.

Tawhid spearheaded the rebel invasion of Aleppo in 2012, widely seen as a mistake and a blow to popular support because it forced the city into battles that destroyed many revered historical sites.

Times journalists witnessed Tawhid fighters using a prisoner as an unwitting suicide bomber. The group’s fighters were accused of looting and of executing prisoners, though, by the dismal standards that came to prevail, they remained more respected than many other groups.

Mr. Saleh used to stress that he fought for all Syrians and would not harm minorities. But days before his death, he told his men they were fighting “for the Sunnis.”

“All the ummah abandoned us,” he said, referring to Muslims worldwide. “Depend not on weapons but on God.” He closed, presciently, with a warning not to gather in large groups. “Beware of that,” he said.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here