He died after three days of air strikes that targeted a meeting for the leaders of Tawheed. He was wounded so badly that they had to move him to a hospital in Gaziantep, were he died.
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Saleh, or Haji Marei as he was known locally, was laid to rest in his hometown of Marei, outside Aleppo. The funeral was kept small for security reasons — only his family and close friends were there. The battalion did not announce the news of his death until later on; they said they did not want to diminish fighters’ morale.
The social media networks are filled with Saleh’s pictures, talking about him, glorifying his morals and his integrity at a time when such traits are hard to come by on the ground in Syria. He was loved by many for being a modest, straightforward and spontaneous man.
Though he gained his reputation as a battlefield commander, Saleh wished that the revolution remained peaceful. He was among the first people who participated and coordinated the original peaceful demonstrations against the regime in Aleppo.
The brutal force used against demonstrations led him to organize a small, armed group to protect the people of his hometown, Marei. When the ferocity of the crackdown increased and the army began to shell rebellious towns across the country, Saleh founded the Tawhid brigade, which is now one of the largest battalions nationwide.
With the formation of Tawhid, he moved from defense to offense.
$20,000 for Abdelqader Saleh, Dead or Alive
For those fighting under Saleh, the leader was more of a brother than a domineering commander. Those who had not yet met him often mistook him for a fellow fighter, not a leader.
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“He was our brother and our friend; he used to always eat and joke with us,” one of the fighters said of his commander.
His endearing traits made him an attractive prize for his enemies. The regime at one point announced a bounty of $20,000 for Saleh, dead or alive.
Saleh survived more than one assassination attempt before the air raid that killed him. On one occasion, he was shot by a sniper while inspecting a newly liberated area in Aleppo. (He recovered quickly and was back on the front lines doing training drills within a few weeks.)
Abo Mahmoud, as his friends liked to call him, was only 33 years old, but he managed to gain the love and trust of many Syrians across the religious and sectarian spectrum of the opposition. He believed that Syria should be “a country for all Syrians, all religions and all sects.”
Haji Marei was a true man of Syria, one activist wrote on Facebook: “When you see all the people —religious or atheists — crying over an Islamist leader, then you know what a great men Abdelqader was.”
What Next for the Revolution?
In his last interview given before his death, Abdelqader urged his fighters to keep their persistence and dedication on the front of Brigade 80 near Aleppo International Airport.
Saleh used to tell jokes to ease the pressure on his fighters, even during the hardest of times.
Outside observers have speculated that after Saleh’s death, the fighters’ resolve will be shaken, especially at a time when regime forces are launching the biggest offense on Aleppo on the eve of the proposed Geneva II conference.
Abdelkarim Laila, the head of the Tawhid Brigade media office, brushed aside such fears. “There are hundreds of leaders in our brigade who were students of Abdelqader Saleh,” he said, adding that Abdelkadi Salama is the general commander of the brigade, while Saleh was only the leader of operations.
He also said that there are hundreds of field commanders on all the fronts and that the brigade will consult everyone to pick another leader to be Saleh’s heir.
In the wake of Abdelqader’s death, the “Sham Hawks” brigades announced a battle of revenge for Saleh in the northwest province of Idlib.
Before his death, Saleh was trying to unify all the fighting battalions on the ground after three years of war. Last week, leading rebel groups, including the powerful Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, and his own Tawhid Battalion, agreed to unite as one.