AMMAN (Reuters) - A prominent Syrian rebel leader has died from wounds suffered in an air raid on the city of Aleppo, in a blow to the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, activists said on Monday.
Abdelqader Saleh, head of the Islamist al-Tawhid Brigades, which is backed by Qatar, died in a Turkish hospital where he had been taken. Saleh had been wounded on Thursday when Assad’s forces raided a Tawhid meeting and killed another commander on the spot, opposition sources said.
“We declare the martyrdom of Abdelqader Saleh,” a statement by Tawhid said.
Having lost several key rebel bases in the past few weeks, Saleh, who was in his 30s, had been working on regrouping fighters in Aleppo before he died. The city, situated 45 kms (28 miles) south of Turkey, was Syria’s commercial hub and most populous city before the uprising against Assad erupted in 2011.
Taking advantage of infighting between rebel groups, Assad’s forces, backed by Shi‘ite militia from Iraq and the Lebanese party Hezbollah, have been have been making advances in the north and east of the contested city.
In an interview with the Opposition Orient Television from a battlefield in eastern Aleppo last week, Saleh said: “We will not let Iran and Hezbollah advance except on our dead bodies.”
Saleh, a merchant from the town of Mareh in the countryside north of Aleppo, organized dozens of rebel brigades in the region under the Tawhid banner. A former army conscript, he was known by the nom de guerre Hajji Mareh.
Tawhid issued a statement last week, along with other Islamist formations that included al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, declaring an emergency and summoning all fighters to head to the fronts.
Opposition activists said the declaration was an indication of how grave rebels regarded the possibility of Assad, boosted by his Shi‘ite militia allies and Iran, wresting back Aleppo.
Tawhid’s ties have been deteriorating with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, another Qaeda affiliate, as clashes broke out in the past few months in the north between the group and other rebel units, including Nusra and units of the Free Syrian Army.
The Syrian war has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, who support the Sunni rebels, and Shi‘ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. The rise of al Qaeda in Syria has posed a dilemma for Western nations that backed the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule.
Assad belongs to Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam that has controlled the country since the 1960s by dominating the army and security apparatus. Assad’s father had forged a now weakened alliance with the Sunni merchant class in Aleppo and Damascus and with Sunni tribes in the east of the country.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday his group will keep fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces as long as necessary.
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Bill Trott