Two Syrian rebel commanders whom I interviewed a year ago have been in the news this month, and their stories are important.
Abdul Kader Saleh, one of the most charismatic Syrian rebel leaders, was killed by a regime air strike in northern Syria last weekend. Saleh commanded the al-Tawheed Brigade, the most important rebel force in the crucial Aleppo region, with 10,000 fighters. His death came amid a wave of rebel setbacks, as regime forces advance on Aleppo.
Then there is Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, another key Aleppo commander, and a defector from the Syrian army, through whom U.S. officials had distributed much of the limited, nonlethal aid they provided to Syrian rebels in the north. He resigned early this month in frustration over rebel infighting.
The stories of Saleh and Akaidi help explain why the regime of Bashar al-Assad has survived so long and is pushing back the rebels. They also provide insights into why al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups have been able to make Syria their new base.
Let me start with Saleh, whom I met in the Turkish border town of Kilis, to which he’d traveled from Syria to recover from a sniper’s bullet to the shoulder. A slight, balding man with a beard and a broad smile, wearing slacks and a hoodie, with one arm in a black sling, Saleh hardly looked the role of a military leader. We spoke in the nearly empty Baklavici cafe over cups of thick, sugary coffee and a plate of baklava.
The 33-year-old Saleh told me he had been a trader in export before the revolution; a friend who accompanied him had been a schoolteacher. Both men got involved in early, peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both described themselves as observant Muslims, like most rural Syrians, but not religious ideologues.
“We wanted a government that gave us our rights,” Saleh said, “and we thought if we asked Assad to leave, he would go. We had no idea of using guns.”
But when regime militias started shooting peaceful protesters, the trader started “collecting people” to fight back, at first using only hunting weapons. Gradually, money and weapons from the Gulf poured into Syria. Saleh fashioned many local grassroots militias into the al-Tawheed Brigade, which became the most important fighting force in the Aleppo area. It also became a key part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella grouping that the United States supposedly backed.
The pragmatic Saleh seemed able to bridge the gap between less and more religious fighters; he avoided the inciting language used by hardline Islamists. “We were normal Muslim people,” he said, “not Salafi [hardline Islamist] or Ikwan [Muslim Brotherhood]. We never came out against Alawites [Assad’s Shiite sect] or Christians, but against Assad.”
Things changed as the bulk of private Gulf money flowed to hard-line Islamist groups — and as Washington refused to arm more moderate militias linked to the Free Syrian Army. Saleh believed he had no choice but to fight alongside the better-armed and determined jihadists. “The fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra [local jihadis with al-Qaida links] have other ideas than us, they are the opposite of us, but anyone fighting Assad is welcome,” Saleh said. So he maintained links, sometimes very questionable, with both the FSA and jihadi groups.
Over the past year, the extremists have continued to outpace other groups in amassing funds from private Gulf sources, especially in Kuwait. An al-Qaida group called the Islamist State in Iraq and Syria gained even more strength in northern Syria and began attacking other rebels, even Tawheed members. Saleh’s efforts at mediation were a failure; with his death, the intra-rebel battles are likely to worsen. Rebel infighting has opened the way for Assad to take back turf.
“The loss of such a well-known centrist is a huge blow to the rebels in northern Syria,” says Aron Lund, a Sweden-based expert on Syrian rebel groups. “He was the best hope for a unifying leader within a mainstream Islamist framework.”
Saleh’s death increases the chances that Syria will split between a rump Assad regime and a lawless zone where jihadis will crush more moderate Syrian militias and civilians. It further shrinks the already minimal chance there will be significant Syrian peace talks in Geneva.
And it also raises the big “what if” question: What if the United States had helped more moderate rebel leaders to arm and organize, before the jihadis grew strong enough to crush them — and to terrify Syrian Alawites and Christians? Might Assad have gone? We’ll never know.
That question makes me recall my meeting in Syria last year with Col. Akaidi, a moderate with no beard, who angrily railed at me, as he also did at visiting U.S. senators, that a failure to arm moderate fighters would strengthen the hands of the Islamists. “If the Americans don’t help, the battle will be longer,” he told me.
There is no end in sight.
TRUDY RUBIN is a columnist and board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.