As the US agonizes over which moderate Syrian rebel force it can comfortably support with its own money and weapons, the Saudis have already picked their man. In a mere three years, their deep pockets have propelled Jamal Maarouf, a former construction worker to become one of the most powerful rebel commanders in Syria's civil war.
Mr. Maarouf emerged in 2011 as the leader of the Jabal al-Zawiyah Martyrs Brigade, a modest fighting force of some 40 men. By 2012 he had secured the patronage of Saudi Arabia – and the money, guns, foreign contacts, and allegiances from other rebels that the Saudi connection enabled. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have poured money, trainers, and volunteers into rebel hands.
When his brigade merged with several other rebel groups in December 2013 to form the Syria Revolutionaries' Front (SRF), he was the clear choice for leader of a much larger coalition of fighters. But in recent months, skepticism has grown over whether Maarouf actually commands loyalty, or cash-starved brigades who want to tap his funds.
The SRF is vying for acceptance from the US as well, but the US appears to have picked another group, the SRF splinter group Harakat Hazm, to receive its much-sought-after military assistance. Maarouf says the US has been supplying him with nonlethal aid since March.
This week, the US announced that it will allow the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition group, to open a diplomatic mission in Washington. The SNC has worked closely with Maarouf – earlier this year, SNC leader Ahmed al-Jarba traveled into northern Syria with the SRF leader.
Saudi Arabia and other governments are holding Maarouf up as "the new face of the revolution," says Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website run by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Jamal Maarouf is one of the most powerful rebel commanders in Syria," Mr. Lund adds.
He typically directs the fight from the frontlines in northern Syria, but sometimes he can be found in the Turkish town of Hatay, a regular rest stop for him and members of his inner circle.
Relaxing in Adidas attire in an apartment building last month, the grizzly commander fielded calls from the front and from Syrians caught traveling from Jordan to Turkey with fake passports. He sipped tea at a steady pace as he listened to field reports and troubleshooted supply issues.
Maarouf's rapid rise
Before the Syrian uprising, Maarouf spent nearly 20 years working in construction in neighboring Lebanon. A native of Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya region, he began participating in peaceful antigovernment protests in Syria in March 2011, inspired by the success of Tunisians and Egyptians who overthrew their leaders in a matter of weeks.
In June, convinced there was no alternative to armed resistance, he formed a brigade. His first victory came weeks later, when he says they booted the Syrian Army from Maaret al-Numan, in central Idlib. From then on, he scored a series of small scale victories, and claims that he was the first rebel to shoot down a MiG fighter belonging to the regime.
Then came the foreign jihadists. At first many rebels welcomed them for their effectiveness against regime forces, but they soon began to resent them for their effort to impose strict Islamic values.
"They started creating emirates and decided they will govern us in the name of religion," Maarouf says. "They want to teach Syrians (how to be Muslims), no!"
In January, Maarouf's forces helped to expel the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from his native Idlib – proving, he says, that he is a moderate rebel aligned with US interests in Syria.
What sets the SRF apart from other rebel groups, particularly jihadist groups, is the absence of foreign fighters and transnational ambitions, Maarouf says. They are fighting only for Syria.
“Al-Qaeda fights in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, and it fights in Syria. As for us, it is clear who we are fighting and what we are fighting for. We are fighting the regime,” he says.
Maarouf, an observant Muslim who has three wives, disavows a future political career. He says Syrians should determine what kind of government they have at the ballot box and that minorities should be afforded protection – even Alawites, the minority sect to which President Assad belongs and has long controlled the levers of government.
Maarouf has been criticized as opportunistic, a war profiteer leading a force that is fighting not for an ideology, but for its financial backers, particularly Saudi Arabia. His battlefield prowess has also been questioned.
“Maarouf’s own politics seem to dovetail closely with those of the Saudi government,” Lund says, pointing to the fact that the SRF was the only big rebel faction to support the Geneva II talks this spring. Maarouf sent representatives there, lending muscle to the Saudi-sanctioned opposition delegation.
Lund says that Maarouf's pocketbook, not his leadership, gives him national reach, which is why factions in southern Syria likely linked up with the Front to tap into foreign support.
“If outside funding to the Syria Revolutionaries Front were to be cut, it would probably fall apart very quickly,” Lund predicts.
Even with such funding, the coalition will collapse, argues Mahmoud Hamad, a former Syrian defense ministry official who defected in December 2011. He says Maarouof has proven incapable of sustaining, let alone winning, a two-pronged offensive, and blamed Maarouf for losing territory and oil fields. In Februrary, he says, ISIS seized an oil field in Jabal al-Shair, allegedly under Maarouf's control.
Abu Alewi, a rebel who recently fled Raqqa Province in northern Syria, highlights a loss to ISIS there as well. “If he has all that power, then why is Raqqa under ISIS control?” he asks.
The problem is that Maarouf's support base is primarily drawn from unemployed youth who “only gathered around him to collect money and who fight for no doctrine," Hamad says. “Saudi Arabia and the US are trying to present him as a strong military commander with a strong army who is able to fight against the regime on the one hand, and fight against [ISIS] on the other, but the fact is he can defeat neither."