Rubin: Divide amid Syria rebels spells long war

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Two Syrian rebel commanders whom I interviewed a year ago have been in the news this month, and their stories are important.

Abdul Kader Saleh, one of the most charismatic Syrian rebel leaders, was killed by a regime air strike in northern Syria last weekend. Saleh commanded the al-Tawheed Brigade, the most important rebel force in the crucial Aleppo region, with 10,000 fighters. His death came amid a wave of rebel setbacks, as regime forces advance on Aleppo.

Then there is Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, another key Aleppo commander, and a defector from the Syrian army. He resigned early this month in frustration over rebel infighting.

The stories of Saleh and Akaidi help explain why the regime of Bashar al-Assad has survived so long and is pushing back the rebels.

Let me start with Saleh, whom I met in the Turkish border town of Kilis, to which he'd traveled from Syria to recover from a sniper's bullet to the shoulder. A slight, balding man with a beard and a broad smile, wearing slacks and a hoodie, with one arm in a black sling, Saleh hardly looked the role of a military leader. We spoke in the nearly empty Baklavici cafe over cups of thick, sugary coffee and a plate of baklava.

The 33-year-old Saleh told me he had been a trader in export before the revolution; a friend who accompanied him had been a schoolteacher. Both men got involved in peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt. Both described themselves as observant Muslims, like most rural Syrians, but not religious ideologues.

"We wanted a government that gave us our rights," Saleh said, "and we thought if we asked Assad to leave, he would go. We had no idea of using guns."

Things changed as the bulk of private Gulf money flowed to hard-line Islamist groups - and as Washington refused to arm more moderate militias linked to the Free Syrian Army.

Over the past year, the extremists have continued to outpace other groups in amassing funds from private Gulf sources, especially in Kuwait. Saleh's efforts at mediation were a failure; with his death, the intra-rebel battles are likely to worsen. Rebel infighting has opened the way for Assad to take back turf.

"The loss of such a well-known centrist is a huge blow to the rebels in northern Syria," says Aron Lund, a Sweden-based expert on Syrian rebel groups. "He was the best hope for a unifying leader within a mainstream Islamist framework."

That question makes me recall my meeting in Syria last year with Col. Akaidi, a moderate with no beard, who angrily railed at me, as he also did at visiting U.S. senators, that a failure to arm moderate fighters would strengthen the hands of the Islamists. "If the Americans don't help, the battle will be longer," he told me.

There is no end in sight.


Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Email: trubin@phillynews.com.