In Qatar desert, Syrian opposition mourns fallen commander
Qatar has long armed and supplied Saleh’s Islamist al-Tawhid brigades
On a patch of desert far from Syria, dozens of men gathered under a white tent to commemorate Abdelqader Saleh, a renowned Syrian rebel commander who died this week from wounds after an air strike in Aleppo.
The mourners, who included senior Syrian opposition members and relatives of Saleh, assembled on Tuesday evening in the empty expanses of Qatar, 20 km (13 miles) from the skyscraper-dotted skyline of the gas-exporting Gulf Arab state.
The unusual scene testified to how deeply one of the world’s richest nations has engaged with the cause of Syrians struggling for the past 32 months to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Qatar has long armed and supplied Saleh’s Islamist al-Tawhid brigades, one of the largest rebel units operating in the sprawling northern city of Aleppo and the surrounding region.
Tawhid fighters, mostly from the countryside, led an assault on Aleppo in July 2012, capturing about half the city before a fightback by Assad’s forces backed by intensive air strikes ushered in a bloody stalemate which still endures.
Since then, rebel factions have splintered. Al-Qaeda-linked militants have sometimes cooperated with more moderateIslamist groups such as Tawhid and sometimes clashed with them.
Abu Abdallah al-Hamwi, head of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist brigade that works with an al Qaeda affiliate called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said this week Saleh had sought his help to heal a rift between ISIL and other groups.
“He wanted a solution to stop Muslims fighting Muslims,” Hamwi said in a statement.
Saleh, Tawhid’s military leader, died in a Turkish hospital after the air strike that cost him his life, as well as that of another Tawhid commander, Youssef al-Abbas or Abu al-Tayyeb.
For their sponsors, the rebels’ morale needed attention.
So along with money, weapons and a lavish embassy villa, Qatar’s generosity to the umbrella Syrian National Coalition extended to a commemoration of the fallen Tawhid leader, a pragmatic merchant-turned-fighter from the Aleppo countryside.
Between sips of tea, opposition members at the wake, partly organised by relatives of Saleh who live in Qatar, insisted that his death would unite the fractious insurgents.
Ahmad Jarba, head of the coalition in exile, which is backed by the West, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, told the ceremony the rebels would exact vengeance for their commander’s killing.
“This will give the youth an incentive to move forward. When you have a martyr of this magnitude, it will make people want to take revenge,” he told Reuters next to pictures of Saleh on display outside the tent.
Jarba said Abdul-Aziz Salama, a political leader of Tawhid, would now assume overall command of the organization.
The presence of Jarba, a Saudi-backed figure, at the Qatar ceremony suggested a rapprochement between the two Gulf nations which have competed for influence over the Syrian opposition.
After Syrian army gains and the loss of several rebel bases in the north and east of Aleppo in the last few weeks, Saleh, who was in his 30s, had been trying to regroup rebel factions.
“Before he died, Saleh united a lot of the forces and now everyone sees the need to stay together, one hand against Bashar,” said Abdulla Ghafour, a trim, clean-shaven cousin of Saleh who now lives in Qatar.
Ahmad al-Sayasneh, once the imam of al-Omari mosque in Deraa, the cradle of Syria’s revolt, gave a sermon condemning Shi’ite Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Assad’s main allies.
“In the eyes of God, Hitler and (Mongol leader) Hulagu are better than Bashar,” said Sayasneh.
He told an attentive audience his message to Iran and Hezbollah was: “This is not your land. You have just come to defend the sinners and the devil worshippers.”
The Syrian war has polarised the Middle East, pitting Iran and its Shi’ite allies against Sunni Muslim powers such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states. The West, alarmed by the growing role of Islamist militants, has been reluctant to get involved - leaving a vacuum that al Qaeda groups have exploited.
The opposition is divided over whether to attend a proposed Syria peace conference in Geneva that may convene next month. Tawhid, along with other rebel groups, had signed a declaration saying the talks would only be acceptable if they removed Assad.
Standing alone in the autumn cold, Nizar al-Haraki, the Syrian opposition’s ambassador to Qatar, appeared resigned.
“We can’t depend on the West and we can’t depend on the U.S. to strike. This revolution will only be won by Syrians. Our revolution is like an orphan, we have no real supporters.”