[Marxism] NYT profile of an FSA commander
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 2 14:37:53 MST 2013
New York Times February 1, 2013
A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War
By C. J. CHIVERS
THE would-be assassin was patient, if not an accomplished shot.
His victim, the Syrian rebel commander Hajji Marea, was fighting a cold
and had sent a bodyguard out to find medicine, the commander’s
supporters said. As he waited, Hajji Marea stepped outside to make a
phone call, when the gunman fired. The bullet missed his head, and
struck his left shoulder.
Months later, Hajji Marea made a fist with his left hand, demonstrating
that he had healed, even while the Syrian government’s bounty remained.
“The bone was broken, but it is O.K. now,” he said, before dressing
against the chill and heading back onto the city’s streets, where
Such is the persona of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a k a Hajji Marea, an
example of the antigovernment leadership emerging inside Syria — a
phenomenon unfolding on battlefields only intermittently visited by
Mr. Saleh leads the military wing of Al Tawhid, the largest
antigovernment fighting group operating in and near Syria’s most
populous city, Aleppo — a position that has made him one of the
government’s most wanted men.
The uprising to unseat President Bashar al-Assad is now almost two years
old. While Western governments have long worried that its self-declared
leaders, many of whom operate from Turkey, cannot jell into a coherent
movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been
producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles.
These men — with inside connections, street credibility and
revolutionary narratives that many of the Western-recognized leadership
lacks — have taken the reins of the war. They hold the weapons. They
have their own international relations and financing.
Should they survive, many of them could become Syria’s postwar power
The commanders range from secular and chain-smoking former military
officers who are products of the same institutions they are fighting, to
bearded extremists working for an Islamic Syria based on their
interpretation of religious law.
Men like Mr. Saleh present both a challenge and an opportunity for the
West as it struggles to understand what is happening in Syria and to
nurture networks that might provide stability and routes for Western
influence should the government fall.
Mr. Saleh’s long-term intentions are not entirely clear. He says he is
focused solely on winning the war, and promotes a tolerant pluralistic
vision for the future. He is also openly aligned with Al Nusra Front, a
growing Islamic militia that has been blacklisted by the United States,
which accuses it of embracing terrorist tactics.
Officials in Washington are aware of Mr. Saleh, and other commanders of
his standing. There is no evidence that they have connections with them,
or a plan for how to develop relations in a Syria that is partly under
MR. SALEH, wounded in battle multiple times, survived an assassination
attempt in the fall, adding to his legend in the Aleppo governorate,
where he is the rebels’ primary military commander.
“Was it $200,000?” he asked a peer, during a recent interview in a
command post hidden in an Aleppo basement, about the bounty for his
head. He seemed uninterested by the answer.
“Our concern now is only in the military side and how to fight this
regime and finish this,” he said.
The son of a shopkeeper in Marea, just north of Aleppo, Mr. Saleh took
an indirect route to guerrilla leader. As a young man, he served two and
a half years as an army conscript, working, he said, in a chemical
He later joined the Dawa religious movement as a missionary. He traveled
abroad, including, one of his brothers said, to Jordan, Turkey and
Bangladesh, where he taught and studied Islam and invited people to hear
the call to faith.
Life in Syria lured him back. His hometown lies in an agricultural belt,
ringed by dark-soiled fields. Mr. Saleh opened a shop on one of Marea’s
main streets, from where he imported and sold seeds. He married and
started a family, which grew to include five children.
Not long after the uprising began, he joined with neighbors and
relatives to organize demonstrations against what he described as the
When the fighting began, and rebels formed underground cells to plan
ambushes, make bombs and persuade government soldiers to defect, Mr.
Saleh’s standing grew. People spoke of a successful commander who was
honest, organized and almost serenely calm under fire.
In many quarters his identity remained unknown. “We were secretive,” he
said. “The public knew there was someone named Hajji Marea who led the
demonstrations. But nobody knew who he was.”
Though he stands a little more than six feet tall, Mr. Saleh is
unimposing, retaining an open face and youthful lankiness. Outsiders
might not even make him for a fighter. One recent day, wearing a hoodie
and moving with a loping gait, he could have passed for a graduate student.
His battlefield name, Hajji Marea, roughly translated, means “the
respectable man from Marea.”
BY last summer, the fighting units near Aleppo had chased most
government forces from the countryside and seized control of a border
crossing to Turkey. Simultaneously, Mr. Saleh was emerging as the main
leader of Al Tawhid. His anonymity ended.
He was soon seen as pragmatic and accommodating, an active commander who
was able to navigate the uprising’s sometimes seemingly contradictory
social worlds. A friend of the Islamists fighting beside him, he also
spoke of avoiding the nihilism of sectarian war.
One of his subcommanders, Omar Abdulkader of the Grandsons of Saladin, a
Kurdish fighting group, described how Mr. Saleh welcomed him and fellow
fighters into Al Tawhid — though they were not Arabs.
“He has supported us since we have formed our battalion, and he bought
for us some weapons and ammunition,” he said. “We’ve never heard or seen
any bad acts from him — all good deeds all the time.”
He added: “Hajji Marea told us there is no difference between Muslim or
Christian, Kurdish or Arab or even Alawi. We are all brothers.”
These days, when Mr. Saleh appears in public, his supporters treat him
with reverential deference. In the summer, Mr. Saleh arrived at a
meeting of commanders in another hidden command post. Several seasoned
battalion leaders almost sat at his feet.
Analysts of the war say that for those who hope to speed the end to the
violence or have influence in Syria afterward, men like Mr. Saleh
present a diplomatic challenge. Should foreign governments and aid
organizations try to establish connections and open a dialogue, before
the window narrows?
At least one organization has tried. Although some antigovernment
fighters in Aleppo have participated in abuses and battlefield excesses
— including the summary execution of prisoners — the perpetrators have
often not been identified and the crimes have not been directly linked
to Mr. Saleh or his immediate followers, a researcher with Human Rights
The researcher, Ole Solvang, said the rights group had urged Mr. Saleh
to direct his fighters to behave lawfully. “As an influential military
opposition leader, Hajji Marea has a particular responsibility to ensure
that opposition fighters do not commit such abuses,” Mr. Solvang said.
For Western governments, outreach is problematic, in part because of
Washington’s policies, which rebels said first were noncommittal, then
shaped by fears of Islam and a tendency toward counterterrorism solutions.
One American official called Mr. Saleh “the real thing” — a commander
with thousands of fighters, independent sources of financing and supply,
good relations with other fighting groups and a record of tactical success.
But Mr. Saleh, who said he differentiates between the American people,
who he said support the uprising, and the American government, which he
said does not, did not hide his displeasure with the Obama administration.
Like many activists and rebels, he saw inconsistency and hypocrisy in
Washington’s position, which Syrians often summarize as this: For the
Assad government to use chemical weapons would be unacceptable; for it
to kill civilians with conventional weapons is fine.
“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are
silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”
Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned
that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has
abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year,
you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be
like Al Qaeda.”
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