ANTAKYA, Turkey — Jamal Maarouf says he's fighting terrorism in Syria — and that the international community should take note.
The powerful rebel commander has been leading the charge on a new front in the country's civil war: the battle between a cross-section of Syrian rebel groups on one side and al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic extremists on the other, who were surging in Syria until recently. The extremists gained ground steadily in opposition-held Syria last year, threatening to dominate the scattered rebellion. Now, Maarouf said, they're on the run. "We will continue this war until we drive them from Syria," he said on Thursday, sitting down for an interview outside the Turkish city of Antakya, near the border with Syria.
When the internal war among the rebels began in early January, Maarouf spearheaded a surprise offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the al-Qaeda-inspired rebel faction, which is led by foreign fighters. The new fight has given moderates like Maarouf a chance to reclaim their influence in the rebellion. And it has become the focal point of a new opposition push to win significant armed support from its international allies, in particular the United States, which has long cited the rebellion's extremist element as the reason for holding back the heavy weapons and surface-to-air missiles rebels say they need to prevail.
The regime of Bashar al-Assad has pushed hard to paint the rebels as terrorists, Maarouf said, in an effort to erode their support in the West. But the fight against ISIS wrested away that narrative, he claimed. Like many in the opposition, he also accused the regime of collaborating with ISIS to weaken the rebellion. "In the end, we proved to the West and to the international community that we are fighting for democracy and freedom," Maarouf said. "The Syrian people will never accept terrorism and extremism. And the proof of that is what's happening in the country right now."
Of the international community, he added: "I am sure they got the message."
Maarouf is a seasoned veteran of the rebellion, with news accounts calling the former handyman one of the first in the province of Idlib to take up arms against the regime and also the first rebel to shoot down a government warplane. A religious man but famously anti-Islamist, his Idlib-based Syrian Martyrs Brigade has been one of the most potent moderate forces in the war.
ISIS was bent on eliminating men like him, Maarouf said — the kind of people he called "the first generation" of the rebellion. It was a necessary step in its plan to co-opt the rebellion and bring the Syrian people under its control, he said.
Like other moderates, as the rebellion dragged on, Maarouf's fortunes waned at the expense of better-resourced Islamists, from the powerful groups leading the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition with the stated aim of creating an Islamic state in Syria, to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's official franchise in the country. But it was ISIS — which also claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda before the terrorist group disowned it last month — that posed the biggest threat, overtaking supply lines and killing rival commanders. ISIS also imprisoned, tortured and executed civilians, and the group is blamed for abducting most of the western journalists and aid workers missing in Syria.
Late last year, Maarouf was placed at the head of a new coalition of moderate rebel groups called the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF). In early January, as ISIS continued its push for expansion, the SRF went on the attack, taking part in a series of battles that drove ISIS from many of its positions in its stronghold of northern Syria. Other rebel groups, and in particular a new coalition called the Mujahideen Army, have also been key to the fight against ISIS. Members of the Islamic Front and even Jabhat al-Nusra have clashed with ISIS too.
ISIS retains considerable strength in Syria, but the group appears to be shaken. "They are very afraid," Maarouf said. "ISIS thought they could scare Syrians with [their brutal tactics], by cutting off people's heads. And they thought the rebels would give up our territory easily. But we took them by surprise."
The fight against ISIS has pushed Maarouf to newfound prominence, positioning him as one of the most influential rebel commanders in Syria. The SRF boasted some 15,000 fighters by the end of last year, according to information compiled by the Syrian Support Group, which channels U.S. assistance to the rebels, and several brigades have joined forces with it since.
Maarouf's backers, meanwhile, are promoting the narrative that he is emerging as the man the U.S. and its international allies can support in Syria — a moderate commander with clout on the ground and a track record of fighting extremists as well as the regime. Oubai Shahbandar, a senior advisor to the Syrian opposition who is currently in Washington, DC to lobby Congress for greater military support, pushed hard on this idea. "Jamal Maarouf is the real deal," he said. "He's someone that America can do business with. He's the man who can fight both al-Qaeda and Assad's militias — the perfect package."
Shahbandar compared Maarouf to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan militant who battled both the Soviets and the Taliban and whose Northern Alliance partnered with U.S. and NATO forces during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
A recent reshuffle in the command structure of the moderate Free Syrian Army — which saw the ousting of its U.S.-backed leader, Gen. Selim Idriss — is expected to further boost Maarouf, who was at odds with Idriss. ("We need someone who will defend the Syrian people. Selim Idriss was just looking to defend his own position," Maarouf said.) In another sign of Maarouf's growing importance, he hosted the head of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition body, Ahmad Jarba, for a rare visit to Syria last week.
From some in Syria, Maarouf faces the kind of accusations leveled at many commanders — he is called a warlord, and charged with stealing funds and pillaging areas under his control, with his Islamist rivals in particular making the latter two claims. Many of the Syrian military officers who defected to the opposition resent Maarouf's civilian background, saying he is unfit to lead. Two Idlib activists based in territory controlled by Maarouf, who declined to criticize Maarouf on the record, complained that it was lawless and unsafe there, saying that Maarouf was concerned only with fighting and with the welfare of his men. Maarouf's opponents agree, however, that he is a capable commander who is eager to fight. And the two Idlib activists said they were happy at least for Maarouf's refusal to impose religion, describing him, amid a sea of bad options, as "the best among the ones who are available" and "the least bad."
"Jamal Maarouf is a rather controversial character with plenty of supporters and detractors," said Amr al-Azm, a U.S.-based member of the Syrian opposition and a professor at Shawnee State University. "He is said to be both an effective military commander and an opportunistic warlord. This may explain why people have such divided opinions of him. More importantly, he is not an Islamist which is what makes him somewhat attractive in the current environment."
One rebel source involved in international assistance to the rebels said that Maarouf had received a significant infusion of weapons and ammunition for his fight against ISIS. The U.S. had not provided these weapons, the source said, "but there is the belief that if America was against this, it would not have happened, would it have?"
Last week, a report in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Saudi Arabia, a long-time patron of Maarouf, had offered to give members of the moderate opposition Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles and Russian-made anti-tank missiles. But the U.S. had yet to drop its objections to the former, the report said, and was focused instead on giving the rebels money to pay salaries.
Other reports have said that the Obama administration is revisiting its military options on Syria, though similar reviews have failed to bring significant support to the rebels in the past.
Maarouf was diplomatic on the subject. "Until now, we didn't receive any heavy weapons or anti-aircraft weapons in all of Syria," he said.
Asked if he was optimistic this would change soon, he said: "I am optimistic that the Syrian people will succeed and win their victory."
But Maarouf said the U.S. should move quickly to increase its armed support to the rebels, especially in light of the stalled, U.S.-backed peace talks between the regime and opposition that have been underway since late January in Geneva. "We support any peaceful solution to the war in Syria," Maarouf said. "But in the end, I think the international community has found that the regime isn't responding to efforts for a peaceful solution in Syria — so they will need to put more pressure on the regime."
Maarouf said the rebels still badly needed heavy and anti-aircraft weapons, or possibly a no-fly zone. "We're suffering mainly from two things — we can't fight the tanks, and we don't have any weapons to fight the aircraft. And the only country who can help with this is the United States," he said. "Jets and tanks are killing tens of thousands of people in Syria, and they are just watching."
Maarouf also claimed that the lack of international support was to blame for the rise of extremists in Syria in the first place. "The responsibility lies not with the Syrian people, but with the international community, because they didn't support the moderate rebels," he said.