Death of rebel leader seen as key loss to Syria's anti-Assad forces

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BEIRUT -- A rebel commander who built the most effective faction in northern Syria of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has died of wounds he suffered last week in an airstrike on a meeting of high-level rebel and opposition figures, his unit announced Monday.

Abdul-Qadir Saleh had been taken to Turkey for treatment of the injuries he had suffered Thursday, when forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad targeted the building where he was meeting with other key rebel leaders outside the contested city of Aleppo. His unit, the Liwa Tahid brigade, initially reported that his injuries weren't serious, but he died shortly after arriving at a medical facility in Gaziantep, Turkey. His body was returned to his hometown in Syria for burial over the weekend, the group said Monday.

Three other high-ranking commanders were killed, and the group's political director was wounded, the group said.

Saleh's death was seen as a massive setback for the future of moderate Islamist rebel factions, which have suffered a series of defeats recently at the hands of the Assad government and al-Qaida-affiliated rebel groups with which they have clashed. Widely seen as the U.S.-backed rebellion's most effective military leader, Saleh had a reputation not only for driving his group's battlefield prowess but also for working effectively with the broad range of anti-Assad groups, from Western donors to al-Qaida-inspired militants.

"The martyr leader Abdul-Qadir Saleh was one of the bravest men of the Syrian revolution," Idlib rebel activist Salar al-Kurdi said. "He had an excellent reputation, and he was well mannered. It is a loss to us because we lost a gentleman and an honest fighter, someone from whom we never heard any lies or betrayal."

Western officials appeared to agree. "It's a real blow that probably puts an end to the question of whether there are moderate rebel factions effective enough to do business with," said a Western military attache posted to Beirut, who regularly visits southern Turkey to meet with rebels. The attache, lacking permission to speak publicly to reporters, spoke on condition of anonymity.

"He was backed by Qatar, at least until recently, and knew how to make Western figures comfortable with his goals for Syria, while at the same time commanding the same sort of battlefield respect from [ordinary] Syrians usually reserved for the more radical factions," the attache said. "The rebels and the West just lost the one commander who might be willing to talk to the regime about a sort of peace and actually be able to deliver some sense of it."

Saleh, said to be 33, had worked as a trader and smuggler before the civil war. His skill at organizing factions throughout the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and the country's economic capital, helped him become one of the best-known faces of the insurgency, and his group became one of its largest, with an estimated 10,000 fighters.

He was a charter member of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Command, a Free Syrian Army umbrella group, but in September, he joined with more than a dozen other rebel factions to renounce any ties to the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the civilian group the United States has declared to be the sole representative of the Syrian people.

A devoted Islamist, Saleh claimed to support democracy for a post-Assad Syria, though that democracy would be based on Islamic law.

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