Following Israel’s airstrikes in Syria last week, Abdulkader Saleh, commander of the Syrian rebellion's Tawheed Brigade, stated, “Iran and Hezbollah are cooperating with Israel to be able to support Assad.” While this fantastic claim has no foundation in reality, it provides an interesting window into the worldview of one of the more moderate commanders of the Syrian opposition.
The U.S. has committed to supporting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the leadership of Salim Idriss. Idriss is technically chief of staff for the Supreme Military Council, but in reality the commanders under him have a large degree of independence in terms of operations. The Tawheed Brigade is part of the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), a collection of around 20 Islamist groups from across the country. The SLF’s leader, Sheikh Ahmed Issa, has kept the front out of the FSA’s direct chain of command but maintains “brotherly relations” with Idriss and his organization.
Saleh, commander of the Tawheed Brigade, is one of the most important opposition figures in the fight for the strategic northern city of Aleppo. Before taking up arms against the government, Saleh was an import-export trader. Some analysts speculate that his previous line of work has helped him keep his brigade well-resourced while other fighting units find themselves starved of supplies and ammunition.
While the SLF, the Tawheed Brigade, and Saleh all support the founding of a post-Assad state built on the fundamentals of Islam, they are far more moderate than Jabhat al-Nusra, the much-reported-on Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. It has been reported that despite his willingness to work with Jabhat al-Nusra affiliated brigades in Aleppo, Saleh has allowed Christian and Kurdish units to fight with his brigade.
Still Saleh’s surprising comments on the supposed collusion between Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, and Israel against the opposition show the warped regional view of even this relatively middle-of-the-road opposition leader. Iran and Hezbollah are actively supporting Assad in his fight for survival, for a Syria dominated by Assad constitutes an integral part of the “axis of resistance” against Israel in the region.
However Israel is facing a far more complex strategic environment than its Iranian and Hezbollah opponents. While a state of war has technically existed between Israel and Syria since the end of the 1967 war, the border has been relatively quiet despite covert hostilities between the two states. Israel has no fondness for Assad, but prefers the enemy it knows to the unknown enemy that is slowly taking shape as Syria falls apart.
As evidenced from Saleh’s comment, even if the more moderate opposition brigades are able to out-maneuver the more hardline Al-Qaeda affiliates, there are no guarantees that they will be more willing to keep the relative peace along the Syrian-Israeli border. The fact remains that Saleh believes that Israel is supporting Assad, and he may seek to punish Israel for this perceived support.