REYHANLI, Turkey — In Syria’s chaotic and increasingly radicalized 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 laborer 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 U.S.-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 al-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 Islamists 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 won’t 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 in order 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.”
Whether he can make a comeback or not will depend to a large degree on the foreign donors who have funneled money and weapons to Syria’s rebels over the past two years, often erratically and in competition with one another.
Although Maarouf is often identified as a U.S. ally, in fact he received scant American support, said Maarouf, U.S. officials and members of the Syrian opposition. He was given U.S. aid in the form of food, medicine, blankets and mattresses, they say.
But when the United States began covertly arming select rebel groups in northern Syria a year ago, his immediate group of fighters was not chosen to receive the weapons — though some of the other factions who pledged allegiance to his front did.
The United States was queasy about supporting him in part because of his reputation, said Robert Ford, who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Syria at the time and is now with the Middle East Institute in Washington. He said he spoke to Maarouf on the phone but did not meet him.
“We had the impression that he was a nationalist, not an ideologue. We also understood that he wasn’t entirely clean,” Ford said. “He had a reputation as someone who was doing some deals on the side.”
Maarouf’s main sponsor was Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, which saw in him an opportunity to push back against the rising influence of Islamist groups — many of which were receiving funding from Qatar, Riyadh’s chief rival for influence in the Middle East.
Saudi money began flowing to Maarouf relatively early in the revolt, in the spring of 2012, he said in a separate interview last year. His Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade quickly mushroomed to 7,000 men, expanding his influence throughout northwestern Syria.
He later launched the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a nationwide umbrella movement that he claimedcomprised 17 factions and totaled more than 20,000 fighters. The new front marketed itself as the leading force of moderation in Syria, worthy of U.S. support to counter the even more formidable expansion of Islamist groups.
But aid to the moderates never matched that given to the Islamists, leaving some rebels with little choice but to resort to other means to secure funds, Ford said.
Moderate rebels “are living literally hand to mouth,” he said. “The West never provided much help, the Saudis never provided much.”
“In the absence of reliable support, of course you’re going to have commanders desperate to find resources for their troops,” Ford said. “This American caution aggravates problems. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The U.S. government started ramping up aid to the rebels last year and also successfully reined in the funding activities of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, several rebel commanders said. But the new U.S. assistance was insufficient to substitute for the quantities that had been provided by the countries of the Persian Gulf, they said, leaving all the rebel groups worse off, and the moderate ones at the biggest disadvantage. Maarouf said he had received almost no assistance for months.
That may be changing. Syrian opposition officials say he recently received a new injection of funds from Saudi Arabia, and though Maarouf refused to confirm the reports, he said he is hoping for assistance. “Anyone who helps us, we will be thankful,” he said.
His reputation may also be starting to recover, at least among some of those who now find themselves living under the extremists’ rule.
Maarouf’s group was renowned for its control of the lucrative oil trade across the Turkish border; its members exacted taxes from trucks ferrying fuel at checkpoints widely dubbed “diesel checkpoints.” His own nickname, Jamal Makhlouf, refers to the Syrian businessman and Assad family member whose legendary corruption helped fuel the Syrian uprising in 2011.
The Jabhat al-Nusra fighters who have taken over the area he once controlled are now imposing similar taxes on the oil smugglers, according to a local media activist who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is afraid. They have, moreover, set about detaining all those they suspect once associated with Maarouf, including the men who deserted him, leaving many local residents regretting they ever supported the newcomers, he said.
“I was one of those who welcomed Jabhat al-Nusra into Zawiya, but now I regret it,” the media activist said. “Before, 90 percent of the people wanted Jabhat al-Nusra and hated Jamal Maarouf. But now everyone hates Nusra and wants Jamal Maarouf to come back.”