The death of Abdelqader Saleh by Aron Lund

 for Syria Comment
Sunday, 17 November 2013

A spokesperson for the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Command just confirmed to me that Abdelqader Saleh, the military leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, is dead.

Saleh was one of the commanders hit in an airstrike a few days ago, or more likely a series of strikes. Three of the Tawhid Brigade’s “division commanders” (qaid firqa) were reportedly killed at the same time, and the political leader Abdelaziz Salame was injured. Salame then appeared in a film taken at the hospital, and seemed to be in reasonably good condition (for someone just hit by a missile).

Saleh, on the other hand, was never shown on tape. He was reported to be under hospital care in Turkey. In his sickbed video, Salame repeated that Saleh was alive and in splendid health. But apparently things were much more severe than Tawhid wanted to let on, and Saleh is now reported dead, at age 33. When he passed away remains unclear – immediately or after hospital care? – but according to this article on Aks al-Sir, he has already been buried in his hometown, Marea.

Who was Abdelqader Saleh?

Abdelqader Saleh’s death is big news. He was one of the founders of the Tawhid Brigade in July 2012, when the group came together from a constellation of local units in the northern Syrian countryside to charge into Aleppo. The core of the group was a number of commanders from Anadan (including Abdelaziz Salame and Abu Tawfiq), Marea (Saleh), Aazaz and other places. Many, including Saleh, had a background as participants in the peaceful protests against Assad, but by the time of Tawhid’s creation all of them had grown into important local military leaders. Several of these founding leaders used noms de guerre on a theme of “Hajji so-and-so”, to signal which town they led, or claimed to lead. So Abdelaziz Salame became Hajji Anadan, and Saleh himself was Hajji Marea. He was still affectionately called that way among his supporters.

As a charismatic leader who led from the front, and was often seen in news broadcasts discussing tactics with his fighters as gunfire crackled from just down the street, he was a hugely important figure in the Aleppo insurgency. His background was not in politics, and contrary to recurrent rumors, he had not spent time in Seidnaia Prison among many other Islamists, and neither had he fought in Iraq. A Tawhid spokesperson claimed to me that Saleh had in fact been opposed to fighters travelling to Iraq to fight the Americans, and tried to discourage young men from doing so, despite his own opposition to the US occupation. He was a trader, and according to some rumors, he sold considerable family assets at the start of the uprising, in order to finance his brigade in Marea.

Politically he was – or became – an Islamist, who made no bones about seeking sharia law in Syria. But he was clearly not part of the radical fundamentalist camp. He avoided the minority-baiting common among hardline salafis, and signalled that he wanted Syria’s future to be decided in elections, although he sought some form of Islamic framework for those elections. He worked well with Western and Gulf financiers, and his group clearly enjoyed some form of international backing. It was a charter member of the Supreme Military Command (which is the most-recent incarnation of the Free Syrian Army). Abdelqader Saleh himself was part of its official command structure, holding the inconspicuous-sounding post of assistant deputy commander of the northern region. At the same time, he held close to local Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, and even Jabhat al-Nosra.

Tawhid recently signed on to the September 24 statement denouncing the National Coalition exiles, and calling for an internal rebel leadership. In line with its centrist-Islamist orientation, and also to protect its own financial interests, the Tawhid Brigade had also made a half-hearted effort to broker a deal that would stop the Islamic State’s takeover of Aazaz; Tawhid held a 50% stake in the nearby Bab al-Salama border crossing. But while Tawhid’s relations to the Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were clearly deteriorating, there had never been any serious fighting between the two groups, and both sides tried to downplay the risk of conflict.

The Tawhid Brigade

The Tawhid Brigade remains the most important group in the Aleppo region, and by virtue of Aleppo’s importance, it is certainly one of the most important rebel factions in Syria. After some reorganizations, it now consists of around 30 “divisions”, and claims to control a total manpower well above 10,000 soldiers. Almost all of these are in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, although there are some Tawhid affiliates in Idleb or as far away as Damascus.

The group is generally seen as Islamist, and has used religious rhetoric since its foundation. In late 2012, Tawhid was one of the founding members of the Aleppo Sharia Court system. But the ideological commitment within the group seems to vary quite a lot across subunits and among members. It could hardly be described as one of the more ideological Islamist groups of the war, rather as an Islamist-oriented big-tent movement. In fact, many have accused the group of plundering public and private property in Aleppo, indicating that fighters were poorly disciplined and to some extent motivated by money. Saleh was visibly uncomfortable when faced with such accusations in his interview with Taysir Allouni on Aljazeera some months ago.

What will happen with Tawhid?

As mentioned above, the Tawhid Brigade is an large, sprawling umbrella movement formed out of regional militias. Leadership succession might not be an easy thing for such a group. It could suffer internal divisions and even violent strife, at the loss of a central and unifying leader. At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition. Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing subunits and fighters to other groups. Most of the major speculants would  presumably be more hardline Islamist factions, like its local allies in Ahrar al-Sham. But it’s also possible that local rebel politics, or the politics of money, will help steer fighters away from such ties, or indeed contribute effectively to the cohesion of Tawhid.For one thing, Abdelaziz Salame is still alive, albeit wounded. An Islamist figure and former honey-trader from Anadan, he is formally the group’s top leader, although was never as well-known as Saleh. Having him alive gives Tawhid a certain political and institutional continuity at the moment, which it could certainly use. But Salame has not run the military side of things, and may not be in a position to influence the choice of military commander if factional conflict erupts.

In any case, the inner politics of Tawhid remain completely opaque, at least to me. Speculation is useless. All that can be said is that the succession issue will be affected both by pressure and coaxing from Tawhid’s international and regional state backers, and its local rebel allies, and by internal deliberations that are equally obscure, but are certain to include the balancing of military power, personal relations among the leaders, their varying ideological concerns, and the regional interests that they represent.

– Aron Lund

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