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 artillery boomed.
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 outsiders.
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 brokers.
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 their influence.
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 weapons unit.
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 government’s repression.
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 Watch said.
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.”