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Newspapers: Death of “rebel” leader seen as key loss to Syria’s anti-government forces


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 government forces 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 rebel factions,” which have suffered a series of defeats recently at the hands of the government and forces and al Qaida-affiliated groups with which they’ve clashed.
“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 opposition fighters. The attache, lacking permission to speak on the record to reporters, spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
“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 opposition 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.
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 government 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 army infantry school capyured by opposition 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 government 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.”

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