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Syrian rebel leader killed in another blow to Assad foes

November 18, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos
  • A rebel fighter from the Free Syrian Army runs in a street of Aleppo's Salah al-Din neighbourhood during fighting against Syrian government forces on Monday.
A rebel fighter from the Free Syrian Army runs in a street of Aleppo's… (Karam al-Masri / AFP/Getty…)

BEIRUT -- A major Syrian rebel group confirmed Monday the death of its military chief, signifying another blow to opposition forces reeling from government counter-attacks, internal divisions and Western alarm about the rapid growth of extremist factions linked to Al Qaeda.

The Liwa Al-Tawheed brigade said in a video posted on YouTube that its military commander, Abdul Qader al-Saleh, also known as Hajji Marea, had passed to “martyrdom,” apparently after being injured last week in government air strikes. Several other Tawheed commanders were also reportedly killed or wounded in the aerial assaults.

Saleh was a charismatic former merchant who was among the founders last year of the Tawheed brigade, which brought together various fighting factions and remains among the most powerful rebel groups in the northern city of Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub.

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Aleppo, a war zone for the last 16 months, remains roughly divided between government and opposition forces. Clashes and bombardment have left many areas of the city heavily damaged; much of its former population of more than 2 million has fled.

While Saleh was an Islamist, he was generally regarded as more moderate than the al Qaeda-linked factions that have become increasingly dominant in rebel-held stretches of northern Syria. In September, Tawheed tried to broker a peace deal in the city of Azaz, close to the Turkish border, among an al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and a rebel faction affiliated with the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.

Also in September, Tawheed was among a number of Islamist factions that signed a statement rejecting the leadership of the exile-based Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella opposition group supported by the West and various Arab nations. The statement dramatized the limited support that the coalition has inside Syria.

It was unclear how Saleh’s death would affect operations of the Tawheed brigade, which is reported to have some 8,000 fighters under its banner, mostly in the Aleppo area. After its leadership was hit in the air strikes last week, Tawheed reportedly arrested a number of people suspected of being government informants.

News of the Tawheed commander’s death came as government forces are battering rebel strongholds across the country, including in Aleppo, central Homs province and the suburbs of Damascus, the capital. Last week, the government said it had recaptured a military base and a strategic town outside Aleppo and a formerly rebel-held suburb south of Damascus.

With the tide of battle turning against them, Syrian rebels appear to have stepped up mortar attacks on Damascus from positions outside the capital. Syria’s official news agency has reported at least 10 people killed in mortar strikes in the last two days, along with many injured.

Syrian authorities have called for international censure of “indiscriminate” shelling of the capital. Last week, the United Nations condemned as "barbaric" mortar strikes that killed at least four students in a school bus and injured other children in recent days.

In recent days, fighting has flared inside Syria close to the Lebanese border.

Clashes and government air strikes sent several thousand Syrians fleeing into Lebanon this last weekend, opposition activists reported, further stretching resources in the neighboring nation. Lebanon is already home to close to 1 million Syrian refugees.

As winter approaches, the United Nations has warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria, where more than one third of the population is in need of assistance, including food, water, medical treatment and shelter. Many reside in besieged or cut-off areas where fighting is continuing and access is blocked by both government and opposition forces, aid workers say.

Given the calamitous situation, U.N. representatives voice hope that long-delayed Syrian peace talks known as Geneva 2 can be held as soon as mid-December. The talks would mark the first direct negotiations between the government of President Bashar Assad and various opposition representatives.

But the fractious opposition has been deeply divided on the prospective talks; many groups insist that Assad’s ultimate departure from office must be guaranteed. The Syrian government has rejected any demand that Assad be forced to step down as part of the negotiations.


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Staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Bulos from Philadelphia.

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