| Liz Sly |
REYHANLI, Turkey (WP-BLOOM) – In Syria’s chaotic and increasingly radicalised revolution, one man stood out for having resolutely moderate views, a large following and, it was widely whispered, the support of the United States and its allies.
Jamal Maarouf, a former day labourer who until recently was one of northern Syria’s most powerful commanders, had been held up by the Syrian opposition as a model rebel leader who shunned extremism and was among the first to take up arms against the Islamic State.
He had also, however, established a reputation as a warlord, whose fighters exacted tribute at checkpoints and spent more time engaged in the lucrative smuggling businesses he operated than waging war.
When the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group forced him to flee his headquarters in the picturesque Jabal Zawiya mountains of northern Idlib province in November, Maarouf found himself with few friends. About half of his men remained behind, preferring to accommodate the invaders than fight for their leader. Moderate allied groups declined to respond to his pleas for help. So did the US-led coalition, which failed to answer e-mails sent by the Syrian opposition requesting airstrikes against his attackers.
Syrians elsewhere expressed little sympathy for a man who, in the eyes of many, had come to represent not the best but the worst of what the revolt against President Bashar Assad had become.
“We didn’t rise up against Bashar to replace him with someone like Jamal Maarouf,” said a commander with Ansar al-Sham, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his small rebel group has tried to steer a path of neutrality.
The story of Maarouf’s rise and fall illuminates some of the reasons why moderate rebels have fared so badly in the competition for influence with extremists in Syria’s complicated war. It also underscores the challenges confronting the United States as it casts around for allies on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State, the main focus of America’s latest Middle East intervention.
Although his ouster would not spell the end of the moderate rebellion in Syria, it does represent a significant setback to the groups’ increasingly desperate struggle to survive.
Maarouf denies wrongdoing and blames his notoriety on “propaganda” disseminated by his enemies. In a recent interview, he vowed to return to Syria and continue the fight.
“I haven’t lost everything,” he said, as he sat surrounded by over a dozen of his men in a sparsely furnished apartment in Reyhanli, a drab Turkish town bordering Syria that has become a logistical hub and a refuge for rebels of all stripes.
“This is war. It ebbs and flows,” he said. “The Syrian revolution is not about one village.”
Maarouf said he had only temporarily relocated to Turkey to attend meetings. “If you think that my being in Turkey means it is because I have fled, you are wrong,” he said. “We can go back to Syria whenever we want.”