The Frontman vs. al Qaeda

Meet Jamal Maarouf, the West's best fighting chance against Syria's Islamist armies.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — In this Turkish town, just miles from the Syrian border, Jamal Maarouf has traded his military fatigues for simple civilian dress. He sits in a narrow apartment in the town's old city; a tangle of charging smartphones rests in the middle of the room. The leader of the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance, is surrounded by his commanders and advisors, who are perched on overstuffed couches and thin foam mattresses.

Maarouf is only here for the day, and plans to return to the battlefield later that night. "I am a fighter," he says. "I eat and sleep with my men, and during the battles I'm always with them on the front line. I feel their pain." 

Maarouf has been the big winner of the recent push by rebel groups to oust the extremist al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), from northern Syria. His alliance was one of the first to launch the fight against ISIS, winning a series of quick, decisive victories in early January that shot it to prominence both inside Syria and out. Islamist rebels have also gradually joined his cause: The Islamic Front, the country's largest rebel alliance, has repeatedly clashed with ISIS, while Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, issued an ultimatum last week calling on ISIS to submit to mediation or be exterminated.

The SRF is a collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, bound more by their common cause to roll back Islamist influence in Syria than a specific ideology. The group was formed in early December by uniting 14 factions with particularly strong representation in the northern Idlib province, including Maarouf's Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, Ahrar al-Shamal, and the Idlib Military Council.

While an estimated 3,000 anti-Assad fighters have been killed in the infighting against ISIS, Maarouf believes that the effort to expel the jihadist group is only making the rebel cause stronger. He claims the fight has healed the divisions that previously plagued the rebel forces, and transformed the opposition into stronger, more effective fighters.

"It's a positive situation," he says. "Now around 70 percent of Syria's opposition groups are unified and together they're doing well, securing many victories against both the regime and [ISIS]."

Maarouf's actions have led some to hope that he could be a rebel commander that the West could wholeheartedly support -- someone with influence on the ground, and no extremist tendencies. He maintains close ties with Syria's Western-backed political leadership in exile, most recently becoming one of the few commanders to endorse the peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland, last month. On the eve of the negotiations, Syrian National Coalition head Ahmad Jarba paid Maarouf a battlefield visit -- an effort to use the moderate rebel commander as proof that the opposition coalition had influence on the ground in Syria.

Maarouf says he would be open to Western support, and it's not hard to see why his political and religious views make him a potentially attractive partner for those concerned with the rise of Islamist extremists. "I love my country and I am a practicing Muslim," he explains, "but my religion preserves dignity and freedom for other people as well."

The rebel commander says he's fighting for an inclusive Syria with a representative government: "The real Syrian people don't like terrorism or extremism, they're a tolerant people," he says.

Maarouf's lack of any defined ideology had led to condemnations from rival groups that he had joined Syria's war for little more than his own enrichment. Hassan Aboud, a leader of the Salafist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, has called Maarouf's men "gangs," accusing them of attacking and stealing from other members of the opposition. After the Islamic Front, an umbrella alliance for Islamist militias of which Aboud is a top official, was accused of pillaging warehouses being used by the Western-backed Supreme Military Council, Aboud shot back, saying that Maarouf "should not forget he was one of the first to steal from the Free Syrian Army." As a result of such condemnations, support for his Syrian Martyrs' Brigade dwindled throughout much of 2013.

"In terms of the Syrian conflict all together, I think he's predominantly been seen as an opportunist," says Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha center. "For a period of time prior to the formation of the SRF under his leadership, his popular support on the ground had reduced significantly and he was almost decried within certain circles."

All this turned on a dime when Maarouf first took on ISIS. In the SRF's first battle against ISIS, his forces routed the jihadists from the strategically important town of Atareb, near the Turkish border. Maarouf justifies his struggle against ISIS in explicitly religious terms: "The Quran says you have your religion and I have mine," he says, but continues with a caveat. "God also says you can attack anyone if he attacks you, even if he is a Muslim."

For Maarouf and his men, this confidence has translated into an influx of weapons and cash -- mostly from Saudi Arabia, Maarouf says. The rebel commander shrugs off a question about whether his close ties to the kingdom are problematic for someone who claims to fight only for the Syrian people.

"Saudi Arabia supported the revolution from the beginning," he says, unruffled. "Until now we haven't received any other support, so we thank Saudi Arabia very much for all they have given us."

So far, Maarouf appears to be successfully balancing his role as a simple military commander with his need to woo powerful allies abroad for guns and money. Anti-Assad Syrians, meanwhile, are watching closely to see whether he can emerge as a leader strong enough to rid their country of both Assad and the jihadists.

On the other side of Antakya's old city, two Syrian businessmen with ties to a number of rebel groups -- some of whom are critical of Maarouf -- chat about the day's news over flutes of sweet tea. 

When the subject of Maarouf comes up, one of the men pauses. "Let's be honest, nobody in this war in Syria is completely clean," he sighs, betraying a hint of exhaustion with the endless search for a leader to champion. "But at least for me as a Syrian, Maarouf does what I want, he represents the true Syria."



'I Have Decided to Stay Here and Protest Until I Die'

The last stand of Crimea’s pro-Ukraine movement.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Suspended in the Black Sea by a narrow strip of land, Crimea -- with waves lapping its shores -- often seems more like an island than a peninsula. In fact, locals tend to refer to the rest of Ukraine as materik, or mainland. Instead of Ukraine's endless plains, there are real mountains here; instead of freezing winter temperatures, there are often balmy skies. The history of the place, the temperament of the people, even the cuisine: everything is different. For those few activists still fighting for a united Ukraine here, Kiev -- an hour-and-a-half flight from Crimea -- can feel a million miles away.

The pro-Ukrainian rallies were never a popular affair in this predominantly Russian part of the country. Even at the height of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev in early December when tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands marched in the streets against the government of Viktor Yanukovych -- in Crimea there was only the din of a far-away battle. When there were protests here, often only a few hundred people participated. As the situation in Crimea quickly devolved, after Yanukovych's ouster and the calls for Crimea's secession become more strident, about 5,000 Crimean Tatars -- the region's most fervently pro-European group -- blocked the local parliament building on Feb. 26 and clashed with pro-Russian supporters. But that remains the single greatest burst of Euromaidan enthusiasm to date. Afterward, fearing escalation and potential civil war, Tatar leader Refat Chubarov called on his people to stay home to avoid further provocation.

Emotional pro-Ukrainian rallies still occur in Crimea, but they are small and isolated: groups of friends and friends of friends huddling together for warmth and security. To minimize the chances of direct confrontation with the many pro-Russian militant supporters roaming the streets (often, with wooden clubs sticking out of their backpacks), Crimea's Euromaidan activists usually try to steer clear of the central urban areas. Last week, a protest in the region's capital Simferopol took place near the edge of town, in Shevchenko Park, by the bust of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine's national poet. Young professionals and the regional capital's more educated elite, who tend to be the most pro-European, nervously waved sky-blue Tatar flags, blue-and-yellow Ukrainian ones, while their children carried blue and yellow balloons. A few people held hand-made posters calling for peace and unity, a few chanted "Glory to Ukraine," and "Russian soldiers, go home." Then everyone joined in singing, several times over, the Ukrainian national anthem, their voices often drowned out by the constant roar from a nearby boulevard.

The protesters hardly numbered 200, but included a smattering of ethnic groups: Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Jews, and Armenians. Though united in their cause, the event was a far cry from Kiev's Maidan, which brought down a president and changed the course of contemporary European history. An air of despondency and doom pervades Crimea's pro-Ukrainian protests, which feel like the last stand of a people who know, deep inside, they have already lost.

"Our rally is small and probably could not do much, and I don't believe things in Crimea will end well," said Nikita Levintsov, a 25-year-old computer specialist and a Jewish native of Simferopol. "But I stand here anyway."

These tiny gatherings of peaceful pro-Ukrainian sentiment threaten to disappear under a steadily rising tide of Russian nationalism. According to a 2001 census, about 58 percent of Crimea's 2 million residents are ethnic Russians, while Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars comprise 24 percent and 12 percent of the population, respectively.

During a weekend in early March, a pro-Russian secessionist rally numbered in the thousands of people; dozens of buses had brought in supporters to Simferopol from all over Crimea; on a stage built in the middle of the central square by the statue of Lenin, a military band, as well as famous local singers and dance troupes entertained the audience for hours. Phalanxes of Russian and Crimean tricolors fluttered in the wind. Amid all this, the defenders of Ukrainian unity in Crimea look overwhelmed. And it seems that their efforts are for naught: Pro-Russian supporters say that they haven't even noticed them.

"There's no division in Crimea," said Sergei Kuznitzov, a 45-year-old participant in one of this weekend's secessionist rallies in Simferopol. "Everything is just fine, there are no problems."

The small pro-Ukrainian, pro-European rallies remain peaceful and open, for now, though at the Shevchenko Park gathering, about two dozen stern-looking young men in black clothes, army fatigues, and red armbands -- the marks of the Russian "self-defense units" -- stood on the sides of the park alleys, watching the developments. And even though the Crimean Tatars are largely keeping off the streets, limiting their show of resistance to a boycott of a scheduled March 16 referendum on joining Russia, they have already organized their own self-defense units, ready to fight back at a moment's notice.

Crimean Tatars were subjected to massive repression under Stalin, when the entire Tatar population on the peninsula was forcefully deported to Central Asia and nearly half of them perished, so their resistance to Russia rule here runs deep. It is the reason why, despite the call to remain home, some Tatars -- women, in particular -- do take active part in the rallies. "If we don't come out in the streets today to protest, they may come to our homes and deal with us as they see fit later," said Vasfiye Mamutova, an economist by training, now a pensioner. "People are scared and think things would get solved out by themselves. But if you don't take care of politics, politics will take care of you."

The smell of fear is everywhere in Crimea these days, a sinking feeling in the stomach that tells one things could go terribly wrong, terribly fast. The ever-rising number of men in army fatigues in the streets, the dark shine of automatic weapons, the deliberate military step, the fanatical sparkle in the eye: all of these portend something that nobody even wants to imagine.

Members of the Crimean Euromaidan have already experienced first-hand harassment and attacks, according to interviews with activists. In the past weeks, two of their cars were damaged; somebody spilled gasoline in their main office; their faces and names have been plastered in places of prominence as "Crimean traitors;" and on March 9 two of their leading figures, Andrei Shekun and Anatoliy Kowalski, were reportedly taken in by paramilitaries -- they've yet to be released.

In the meantime, many pro-Ukrainian TV stations have been forced off the air. Although life on the surface still appears normal in the capital Simferopol, the rule of law has very nearly dissolved. Even the police force in Simferopol often shirks its duty to keep order, standing passively on the sidelines as paramilitaries and self-defense units openly patrol public spaces, waiting to see how events turn out and who they will answer to next. The city feels increasingly run by the strong and the armed. How long the pro-Ukrainian protesters will go on unimpeded is hard to tell.

But options for those who don't want to see a Russian Crimea are running out. The forces dragging Crimea eastward toward an uncertain future are too strong to be overcome by a group of some 200 protesters, or even groups of well-organized Tatars. There is a feeling here that the outside world -- the United States, the European Union, NATO -- has already tacitly accepted the loss of Crimea, and that their fate as future Russians is sealed.

During a recent pro-Ukrainian rally, Zinaida Kalnikova, a 77-year-old resident of Simferopol and a devoted pro-unity protester, who remembered the horrors of World War II, suddenly burst into tears. "I don't know what will happen. Blood could be spilled. I have four grandchildren, do you understand? I have decided to stay here and protest until I die."

This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Photos: Boryana Katsarova