BEIRUT — A rebel commander who built the most effective faction in northern Syria of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has died of wounds he suffered last week in an airstrike on a meeting of high-level rebel and opposition figures, his unit announced Monday.
Abdul-Qadir Saleh had been taken to Turkey for treatment of the injuries he’d suffered Thursday when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad targeted the building where he was meeting with other key rebel leaders outside the contested city of Aleppo. His unit, the Liwa Tahid brigade, initially reported that his injuries weren’t serious, but he died shortly after arriving at a medical facility in Gaziantep, Turkey. His body was returned to his hometown in Syria for burial over the weekend, the group said Monday.
Three other high-ranking commanders were killed and the group’s political director was wounded, the group said.
Saleh’s death was seen as a massive setback for the future of moderate Islamist rebel factions, which have suffered a series of defeats recently at the hands of the Assad government and al Qaida-affiliated rebel groups with which they’ve clashed. Widely seen as the U.S.-backed rebellion’s most effective military leader, Saleh had a reputation not only for driving his group’s battlefield prowess but also for being able to work effectively with the broad range of anti-Assad groups, from Western donors to al Qaida-inspired militants.
“The martyr leader Abdul-Qadir Saleh was one of the bravest men of the Syrian revolution,” said Salar al Kurdi, a rebel activist from Idlib. “He had an excellent reputation and he was well mannered. It is a loss to us because we lost a gentleman and an honest fighter, someone from whom we never heard any lies or betrayal.”
Western officials appeared to agree.
“It’s a real blow that probably puts an end to the question of whether there are moderate rebel factions effective enough to do business with,” said a Western military attache posted to Beirut, who regularly visits southern Turkey to meet with the rebels. The attache, lacking permission to speak on the record to reporters, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
“He was backed by Qatar, at least until recently, and knew how to make Western figures comfortable with his goals for Syria, while at the same time commanding the same sort of battlefield respect from (ordinary) Syrians usually reserved for the more radical factions,” the attache said. “The rebels and the West just lost the one commander who might be willing to talk to the regime about a sort of peace and actually be able to deliver some sense of it.”
Saleh, who was said to be 33, had worked as a trader and smuggler before the civil war. His skill at organizing factions throughout the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the country’s economic capital, helped him become one of the best-known faces of the insurgency and his group became one of its largest, with an estimated 10,000 fighters. He was a charter member of the American-backed Supreme Military Command, a Free Syrian Army umbrella group, but in September he joined with more than a dozen other rebel factions to renounce any ties to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the civilian group that the United States has declared to be the sole representative of the Syrian people.
A devout Muslim and devoted Islamist, Saleh claimed to support democracy for a post-Assad Syria, though that democracy would be based on Islamic law. His position was considered much more moderate than the more extreme system advocated by his occasional allies in the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, though his decision to formally align himself with Nusra in a new rebel coalition in September had raised questions about the group’s orientation.
After last summer’s rapid gains took a large swath of Aleppo from regime control, Saleh and his allies in the Free Syrian Army suffered a series of internal and external setbacks that had clouded the direction of the rebellion recently.
In recent weeks, his group had fought pitched battles with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in at least five towns in Aleppo province as well as several crucial neighborhoods in the central portion of Aleppo city. Allies blamed that fighting for creating a distraction that allowed pro-Assad forces to recapture at least eight strategic locations in and around Aleppo and to launch efforts to seize another 20 or so.
According to the Syrian Support Group, a Washington-based organization that helps raise money for the Free Syrian Army, government forces have begun a campaign on three sides of Aleppo to regain control of the city.
The Syrian Support Group said Saleh was meeting with his fellow commanders near a rebel-held army infantry school in Aleppo’s northern suburbs when the Syrian government attack came.
Saleh’s death raised the question of whether the meeting’s location had been communicated to government authorities.
“It may have been, for the Assad planes bombed the site where they were all headquartered. But at the same time it may be a coincidence, and thus far the Liwa haven’t said anything,” said Kurdi, the Idlib activist. “People are discussing the issue of betrayal among each other; one story is that a GPS chip was planted on the site of the command headquarters.”
Activists said that in light of gains by pro-Assad forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other rebel groups had agreed to halt fighting with one another in order to better respond to the government offensive.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero