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Death of Syrian rebel Abdulkader al-Saleh threatens hold on Aleppo

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Tawhid Brigade/AP

(Read caption) Abdulkader al-Saleh (l.), the chief commander of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province, speaks to his fighters ahead of an attack on government troops, in Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 13, 2013.

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The death of Abdulkader al-Saleh, commander of a prominent Syrian rebel militia, in a government airstrike has dealt the opposition movement a serious blow and could threaten the rebellion's tenuous hold on Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.

Mr. Saleh, known by his nom de guerre Hajji Marea, was the head of the Liwa al-Tawhid (Tawhid Brigade), which unified several armed groups in 2012 around Aleppo and led a rebel push to seize control of several of its suburbs. Though only in his early thirties and having joined the uprising following a peacetime life as a seed merchant, Saleh quickly emerged as a respected figure, The New York Times reported in February 2013. His death last week, from injuries sustained during a government airstrike, leaves a power vacuum in the Aleppo area that will be challenging for the rebels to fill. 

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Under Saleh’s leadership, Tawhid's ranks expanded to between 4,000 and 10,000 fighters. It once fought under the authority of the Free Syrian Army, but broke away in September to join an alliance of Islamist groups, including one closely linked to Al Qaeda and on the US government's lists of designated terrorist organizations. Although devout, Saleh himself had presented a pluralistic vision for postwar Syria, and he was able to create a diverse list of allies with his pragmatic approach and strategic acumen, according to the New York Times.

In a detailed profile of Saleh last winter, The New York Times correspondent C. J. Chivers described him as one of the movement’s few credible leaders, a standout figure in a patchy coalition defined by suspicion and confusion:

While Western governments have long worried that [the rebel movement’s] self-declared leaders, many of whom operate from Turkey, cannot jell into a coherent movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles.

These men — with inside connections, street credibility and revolutionary narratives that many of the Western-recognized leadership lacks — have taken the reins of the war. They hold the weapons. They have their own international relations and financing. Should they survive, many of them could become Syria’s postwar power brokers. 

One American official called Mr. Saleh “the real thing” — a commander with thousands of fighters, independent sources of financing and supply, good relations with other fighting groups and a record of tactical success.

Saleh’s death raises doubts about the Tawhid Brigade hanging together as a militia. A splintering of the group could have dangerous repercussions for the rebels in the long-running battle for Aleppo, where government forces are now on the offensive.

As the war’s tide has turned in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor in recent months, his army has retaken parts of the city and reestablished control over its airport. Government forces have also seized several opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, and moved to cut the opposition’s supply routes around the country. The airstrike that killed Saleh and several other top-level rebel figures, was part of a campaign to quash the rebels’ hold on Aleppo, according to Reuters

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“As an individual, [Saleh] was very, very important, certainly in the Aleppo area, but increasingly as an individual that many in Syria felt represented the revolution,” Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre told Agence-France Presse.

Passions fueled by Saleh’s death could deepen the fighters’ resolution to close ranks, Lister said. While it was “a very significant blow” to their movement, it could “spur on the rebels to launch a counterattack as the regime advances.”

But it could also mark another ominous setback on the road to further splintering of the movement, other analysts suggested.

“At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition,”  Aron Lund, an independent Syria expert, wrote on the blog Syria Comment on Sunday. “Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing sub-units and fighters to other groups.” 

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