Saleh was one of the opposition’s most respected military figures, and his death triggered concerns that the opposition, fighting both the Assad regime and extremist groups, could lose its tenuous grip on parts of Aleppo.
Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at Kings College London, studies Syria’s armed opposition. We asked him to weigh in on how Saleh’s death will impact the situation on the ground in Aleppo.
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Syria Deeply: How important was Saleh to the opposition?
Shiraz Maher: He was one of the more interesting rebel leaders insofar as he was involved in the uprising when it was still peaceful uprising; so he was one of the song-singing crowd who tried to bring down Assad and then became a rebel military commander, and that gave him importance. He was also respected by international donors and was able to command funds, respect, and support in a way other rebel leaders haven’t been able to. And that respect [was also garnered] because he was on the ground and involved in the fighting. In fact, he condemned the exiled leadership because they weren’t on the ground — they were off spending a lot of time in fancy hotels.
[But] Saleh retained a lot of his cachet.
SD: What will happen next for the opposition in Aleppo?
SM: What happens next with Liwa al-Tawhid will be interesting because it’s an umbrella group for about 25-30 different fighting groups. Saleh was able to hold them all together, and was also well-respected by the heads of other groups, including Ahrar al-Sham. In fact, when ISIS moved into Azaz, he even tried to negotiate a truce between them and the local Free Syrian Army factions. That demonstrates that people were willing to talk and listen to him. Less than a handful of other rebel leaders can claim to have the ear and respect of as many different factions as he did.
SD: What effect has the death had on fighting between the opposition and extremists?
SM: It has an effect insofar as we hear lots about the role of external actors, such as the Saudis and the Qataris. They would prefer a greater role for Liwa at-Tawhid and Ahrar al-Sham, than they would for Jahbat al-Nusra or ISIS. If Tawhid dissolves back into its individual groupings, that weakens the pool of conservative Salafi-jihadists on the ground who aren’t affiliated with al-Qaida, and that’s damaging for the Gulf states who want to support a Sunni insurgency on the ground but who don’t want to support al-Qaida affiliates directly.
SD: Will this make Gulf countries and private donors hesitate to funnel money to moderate opposition fighting groups?
SM: I assume they’ll try and work with Liwa at-Tawhid’s existing political leadership. The point — and we’ve seen this time and again in Syria — is that a leader might emerge who can get people to get together and agree to something and sign a piece of paper, but what happens two weeks later is that all of this proves to be meaningless and it dissipates. That’s the fate Tawhid could suffer – though I don’t want to make a prediction as such.
An ISIS fighter sent me a video of a battle involving ISIS troops in Hama and we had military people look at it to comment on the equipment involved. They were gobsmacked at the quality of the gear used. I asked one of the ISIS fighters in Hama how they were financing it, and he was evasive. He said some of it was war booty, and some was because ISIS targets areas they know are commercially profitable. They do things like sell metal and oil on the black market to traders in Turkey. They’re building and financing a war economy of their own. It’s difficult to estimate how much money ISIS is generating but the kit they’re using is extremely state-of-the-art and expensive.
SD: What will be the reaction of ISIS and other extremist groups who were fighting Tawhid?
SM: I think it’s more indifference. I’ve seen a lot of people eulogize him across the spectrum from different groups, and that made me realize how much he was respected by these groups, because when other leaders had died in the past, there wasn’t this outpouring. Anyway, ISIS has its own problems to deal with right now, after they accidentally killed Mohammed Fares, a commander in Ahrar al-Sham.
SD: Was this a government assassination attempt? Was Assad that worried about Saleh’s power?
SM: Saleh was targeted around February, when they tried to take him out with a sniper and he was shot in the shoulder. In this case, I haven’t yet seen evidence that they knew he was there. As I understand it, Tawhid had taken over a base and they were at the base when Assad forces came in and bombed it. This happens a lot when these guys take over a sensitive site — the Syrian Army comes in and bombs it. I think it was part of the normal plan of attack — I haven’t seen anything to suggest that this was part of an assassination attempt.