A Syrian rebel in the Amariya neighbourhood of Aleppo, on September 22, 2012
A Syrian rebel in the Amariya neighbourhood of Aleppo, on September 22, 2012 .A key tactical victory for rebels in northern Syria proves bittersweet when a well-respected commander is killed. © Miguel Medina - AFP/File
A Syrian rebel in the Amariya neighbourhood of Aleppo, on September 22, 2012
Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: December 17, 2012

Tactical victory bittersweet for Syria rebels

A key tactical victory for rebels in northern Syria proved bittersweet when a well-respected commander was killed, with fighters recalling a father figure with a sharp military mind.

Colonel Yusef al-Jader -- known among rebel fighters simply as Abu Furat -- died as his forces fought to take an infantry academy in the town of Muslimiyeh just north of the embattled city of Aleppo on Saturday.

The rebel takeover of the academy, a sprawling base where regime forces were initially reinforced by troops flown in by helicopter, follows another successful operation to overrun a base in Sheikh Suleiman, also in the north.

The latter success was spearheaded by the Al-Nusra Front, recently blacklisted by Washington for its ties to Al-Qaeda, while the Muslimiyeh operation was led by Liwa al-Tawhid which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We feel proud when a soldier dies in a victorious battle," said Mustafa Marai, a rebel fighter from a nearby town.

"But if I had to choose, I wish Abu Furat were still alive, rather than taking control of the school," the 26-year-old added. "He made many operations a success -- it is hard to find someone like him."

Abu Furat's death was confirmed by the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade on its Facebook page on Saturday, with government forces withdrawing from the base a day later according to a Britain-based monitoring group.

A leader of Abu Furat's brigade told AFP he was killed by a tank shell.

At least 24 rebels, including Abu Furat, were killed in the battle for the academy along with 20 regime troops, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Abu Furat won plaudits from activists and fighters for espousing an inclusive vision of a post-war Syria, one that included the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam from which embattled President Bashar al-Assad hails.

In one video uploaded to YouTube taken just before rebels assaulted the infantry academy, Abu Furat said he would wait as long as possible to attack, to give soldiers the maximum time to defect because he "did not want to kill".

In another, he openly called out to Assad: "The Alawite people are brothers to the Sunni people -- why are you starting a fight between them?"

Although rebels took over the academy on Saturday, regime forces continued to attack it using air power. AFP journalists who visited the base on Sunday scrambled for cover when a warplane appeared overhead and launched a missile.

Fighters and witnesses in the area reported earlier such incidents on the same day.

Buildings close to the base's main gate were left open. Rebels said one had been used as a jail by government forces, while another was accommodation for guards.

A painting of Hafez al-Assad, the president's late father and former ruler of the country, hung above the gate was riddled with bullet holes.

Abu Furat once headed a tank brigade in the Syrian army, but defected after moving his wife and children to a safe area of the war-torn country.

After joining Liwa al-Tawhid, he became a commander in Aleppo.

He frequently fought on the front lines of key battlegrounds such as Salaheddin and Saif al-Dawla in the city of Aleppo.

"The news was terrible for us," Hafidh Ibrahim, a senior Liwa al-Tawhid leader, said at the brigade's headquarters in city. "We lost a great military mind."

Referring to two other senior rebels killed in the academy battle, Ibrahim said: "These military leaders were always on the ground -- they had great experience, and they nurtured many fighters."

Despite his background and position, younger fighters who knew Abu Furat described him as friendly with a sharp wit.

Commenting on Liwa al-Tawhid's Facebook post announcing Abu Furat's death, one person proposed renaming the academy "Martyr Abu Furat School."

"Abu Furat was like a father to us soldiers," Abdullah Kirz, who fought alongside the commander in battles against the regime in Saif al-Dawla and is still based there, told AFP.

In a sign of continuing clashes near the neighbourhood in Aleppo, the room where Abu Furat used to sleep has been commandeered by young fighters.

"Whenever anyone felt sad, he would pick us up," Kirz said. "Nobody felt like Abu Furat was an officer. He was a symbol for all of us. I feel like I have lost a part of my body."

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