Dispatch

The Frontman vs. al Qaeda

The Frontman vs. al Qaeda

ANTAKYA, Turkey — In this Turkish town, just miles from the Syrian border, Jamal Maarouf has traded his military fatigues for simple civilian dress. He sits in a narrow apartment in the town’s old city; a tangle of charging smartphones rests in the middle of the room. The leader of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance, is surrounded by his commanders and advisors, who are perched on overstuffed couches and thin foam mattresses.

Maarouf is only here for the day, and plans to return to the battlefield later that night. "I am a fighter," he says. "I eat and sleep with my men, and during the battles I’m always with them on the front line. I feel their pain." 

Maarouf has been the big winner of the recent push by rebel groups to oust the extremist al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), from northern Syria. His alliance was one of the first to launch the fight against ISIS, winning a series of quick, decisive victories in early January that shot it to prominence both inside Syria and out. Islamist rebels have also gradually joined his cause: The Islamic Front, the country’s largest rebel alliance, has repeatedly clashed with ISIS, while Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, issued an ultimatum last week calling on ISIS to submit to mediation or be exterminated.

The SRF is a collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, bound more by their common cause to roll back Islamist influence in Syria than a specific ideology. The group was formed in early December by uniting 14 factions with particularly strong representation in the northern Idlib province, including Maarouf’s Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Ahrar al-Shamal, and the Idlib Military Council.

While an estimated 3,000 anti-Assad fighters have been killed in the infighting against ISIS, Maarouf believes that the effort to expel the jihadist group is only making the rebel cause stronger. He claims the fight has healed the divisions that previously plagued the rebel forces, and transformed the opposition into stronger, more effective fighters.

"It’s a positive situation," he says. "Now around 70 percent of Syria’s opposition groups are unified and together they’re doing well, securing many victories against both the regime and [ISIS]."

Maarouf’s actions have led some to hope that he could be a rebel commander that the West could wholeheartedly support — someone with influence on the ground, and no extremist tendencies. He maintains close ties with Syria’s Western-backed political leadership in exile, most recently becoming one of the few commanders to endorse the peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, last month. On the eve of the negotiations, Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad Jarba paid Maarouf a battlefield visit — an effort to use the moderate rebel commander as proof that the opposition coalition had influence on the ground in Syria.

Maarouf says he would be open to Western support, and it’s not hard to see why his political and religious views make him a potentially attractive partner for those concerned with the rise of Islamist extremists. "I love my country and I am a practicing Muslim," he explains, "but my religion preserves dignity and freedom for other people as well."

The rebel commander says he’s fighting for an inclusive Syria with a representative government: "The real Syrian people don’t like terrorism or extremism, they’re a tolerant people," he says.

Maarouf’s lack of any defined ideology had led to condemnations from rival groups that he had joined Syria’s war for little more than his own enrichment. Hassan Aboud, a leader of the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, has called Maarouf’s men "gangs," accusing them of attacking and stealing from other members of the opposition. After the Islamic Front, an umbrella alliance for Islamist militias of which Aboud is a top official, was accused of pillaging warehouses being used by the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Aboud shot back, saying that Maarouf "should not forget he was one of the first to steal from the Free Syrian Army." As a result of such condemnations, support for his Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade dwindled throughout much of 2013.

"In terms of the Syrian conflict all together, I think he’s predominantly been seen as an opportunist," says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha center. "For a period of time prior to the formation of the SRF under his leadership, his popular support on the ground had reduced significantly and he was almost decried within certain circles."

All this turned on a dime when Maarouf first took on ISIS. In the SRF’s first battle against ISIS, his forces routed the jihadists from the strategically important town of Atareb, near the Turkish border. Maarouf justifies his struggle against ISIS in explicitly religious terms: "The Quran says you have your religion and I have mine," he says, but continues with a caveat. "God also says you can attack anyone if he attacks you, even if he is a Muslim."

For Maarouf and his men, this confidence has translated into an influx of weapons and cash — mostly from Saudi Arabia, Maarouf says. The rebel commander shrugs off a question about whether his close ties to the kingdom are problematic for someone who claims to fight only for the Syrian people.

"Saudi Arabia supported the revolution from the beginning," he says, unruffled. "Until now we haven’t received any other support, so we thank Saudi Arabia very much for all they have given us."

So far, Maarouf appears to be successfully balancing his role as a simple military commander with his need to woo powerful allies abroad for guns and money. Anti-Assad Syrians, meanwhile, are watching closely to see whether he can emerge as a leader strong enough to rid their country of both Assad and the jihadists.

On the other side of Antakya’s old city, two Syrian businessmen with ties to a number of rebel groups — some of whom are critical of Maarouf — chat about the day’s news over flutes of sweet tea. 

When the subject of Maarouf comes up, one of the men pauses. "Let’s be honest, nobody in this war in Syria is completely clean," he sighs, betraying a hint of exhaustion with the endless search for a leader to champion. "But at least for me as a Syrian, Maarouf does what I want, he represents the true Syria."