On Friday, the Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius announced that he had found a new insurgent commander to back in the Syrian crisis:
The United States needs an alternate strategy for strengthening Syrian moderates who can resist both the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime and al-Qaeda extremists.
(An) opposition leader who may help get the balance right is Jamal Maarouf. He heads a group called the Syria Revolutionaries Front and is the leading moderate rebel commander in northern Syria.
For more than a year, Ignatius has been a cheerleader for General Salim Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council. But, with Idriss dismissed by the opposition Syrian National Coalition this month, Ignatius seems content to leave him behind:
Maarouf, 39, is an example of the younger generation of commanders in the bottom-up Syrian revolution. The previous Free Syrian Army leader in the north, Gen Salim Idriss, was a thoughtful, German-educated former professor at a Syrian war college. By contrast, Maarouf is high-school graduate who served in a tank unit during his two-year mandatory service in the Syrian army and then worked in construction in Lebanon….
He has been a successful field commander….Perhaps more important, he talks like a genuinely moderate man who hasn’t succumbed to the sectarian poison that has infected much of the opposition.
The significance of Ignatius’ promotion of Maarouf lies not in the accuracy of the portrayal but in its timing and its depiction of an acceptable “moderate” partner for the Obama Administration.
Given the connections of the journalist with US officials — who often use him to put out their preferred version of events and to test out ideas for tactics and policies — what does his column say about the latest American approach to the insurgency?
Conversely, what does it say about a new insurgent strategy to win US support, not just with rhetoric but with supplies and weapons, after months of American retreat because of fears of “extremists”?
The answers lie far beyond the surface of Ignatius’s sentences. For example, you would never know from his column that Maarouf and his Syrian Revolutionary Front are controversial within the insurgency. They have been accused by insurgent commanders of taking property from civilians, carrying out operations for financial profit rather than for military advantage, making more money from manipulation of the aid of foreign backers, and raiding the supplies of other factions.
An incident in December highlighted the tension, and its effect on US relations with the insurgency.
After warehouses of the Free Syrian Army were raided near the Turkish border, the US Government blamed the newly-formed Islamic Front and cut off non-lethal aid to all opposition fighters. However, the Front denied the allegation and said the Free Syrian Army had asked it to protect the warehouses from further attacks — a statement supported by the Syrian National Coalition and the Supreme Military Council.
So who had carried out the raid? Sources within the insurgency pointed to Maarouf’s Syrian Revolutionary Front.
What mattered, however, was not the reality but the politics and the propaganda. In recent weeks, Maarouf has pursued a PR campaign for his “moderation”, giving interviews to a series of foreign journalists.
And he has powerful allies in that effort. Last month, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmed Jarba, made a rare journey inside Syria for talks and a photo-opportunity with Maarouf. Days later, the Coalition made its initial attempt to fire General Idriss.
The message for Washington, which had walked away from its promise last June to deliver military aid to insurgents, was clear. Jarba’s Coalition could work with Maarouf in a reshaped, “moderate” insurgency. This would defeat both the Assad regime and the “Al Qa’eda-linked extremists” such as the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham, while isolating other insurgent faction such as the “Al Qa’eda-linked” Jabhat al-Nusra.
But wouldn’t this promotion of Maarouf mean further divisions within the insurgency, given the far-from-cordial relationship between the Syrian Revolutionary Front and other factions?
Here’s the twist. Other insurgent groups might not like Maarouf. They might not trust him. But all this can be set aside if he can help deliver American assistance.
That is why those factions and commanders, so critical of Maarouf last year, have not objected to his prominent appearance with Jarba and his celebration by Western media. Even Hassan Aboud — the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, a key faction in the Islamic Front — has muted his earlier description of the “gangs” of the Syrian Revolutionary Front.
It is far too early to tell if the strategy will be successful. Cloaked by the words of favorable journalists, the US Government has made no statement indicating a commitment. Instead, American officials on the ground have blocked supplies to advancing insurgent fighters.
Yet Ignatius’ opening sentence is a clear declaration that the US strategy since mid-2013, including after the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks in August, is being given the last rites: “With the Ukraine crisis, any fleeting hope that the U.S. and Russia could soon broker a political settlement in Syria has vanished.”
And in that burial lies at least a glimpse of opportunity for the insurgency.