It’s been a while since the civil war in Syria descended into a bitter stalemate, but things took a definite turn for the worse for the rebels this weekend with the death of Abdelqader Saleh. Saleh was one of the most prominent, charismatic, and successful rebels in Aleppo. He reportedly commanded 10,000 men—the Tawhid Brigade. He went out of his way to maintain good relations with other rebels, including Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. He had weapons and money from friendly supporters in the West and the Gulf, and he led his men to battle from the front.His death, and the concurrent demise of several of his deputies, comes as the Syrian civil war continues to grow more dire for rebel forces. A regime offensive in Aleppo is the most intense yet in the civil war, local media sources say. Rebels feeling the strain called desperately for reinforcements lest their supply routes to Turkey be cut off by the surging regime.Reuters captures the mood:
Just a year ago, Western countries were predicting he would be overthrown soon. Now, the West has effectively erased rebel hopes for military aid like the NATO warplanes that helped bring down Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.Since then, Assad’s forces, backed by Shi’ite militia allies from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, have captured key rebel areas on the edge of Damascus and in Aleppo.Western countries’ support for the rebels has also waned as Sunni Islamist militants, many of them foreign jihadists, have gained prominence among them, changing the diplomatic calculus ahead of a long delayed international peace conference.
A bomb planted in the basement of a government building in Damascus killed 31 troops, including four senior officers, on Sunday, but this small victory hasn’t been enough to dispel the gloom among the Syrian rebels and their supporters. Saleh’s death in Aleppo threatens to further erode whatever sense of unity still lingers between struggling rebel units.Meanwhile, things don’t look promising for the rebels in the international arena, either. It is highly likely that the deal being debated between the P5+1 and Iran includes some sort of free hand for Tehran in Syria. Syria for nukes. It would be a good deal for Iran, the deal the mullahs have been striving for for decades: a Shiite crescent from Tehran to Beirut, acquiescence as Iran becomes the dominant power in the region. Under that arrangement, Western support for the Syrian rebels, such as it is, will probably evaporate, leaving them dependent on the Gulf. Gulf money and weapons will continue to elevate radical rebel groups above their more moderate rivals. On the other side, Iran can increase support for the Assad regime and Hezbollah.And an already ugly war will get uglier.