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Ignatius: In Syria, rebel with a cause

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With the Ukraine crisis, any fleeting hope that the U.S. and Russia could soon broker a political settlement in Syria has vanished. 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.

A new Syrian 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. I spoke Thursday by phone with Maarouf, who was near the Syria-Turkey border. He outlined a two-pronged strategy that sounded more pragmatic than anything I’ve heard from the opposition in recent months.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Maarouf says his forces must simultaneously fight Assad’s army and the fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, two jihadist groups with al-Qaeda roots. That’s easier said than done, but Maarouf has actually accomplished it in his home region of Idlib. His fighters drove Assad’s army from Maarat al-Numan, a town in central Idlib, back in August 2011, and two months ago they expelled ISIS jihadists from the area.

The Syrian rebel commander has widened the anti-jihadist fight. His forces expelled ISIS from northern Aleppo Province and are seeking to clear eastern Aleppo. They have just driven the extremists from their staging area of Darkush, along the Turkish border. If he can get enough money and weapons, he wants to take the fight against the extremists east, to the northern suburbs of Aleppo and eventually the eastern cities of Raqqah and Deir al-Zour.

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.

Maarouf appears to have two qualities that have been missing among the moderate opposition. First, he has been a successful field commander. Second, and 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. He says many members of the regime army are “sons of Syria,” too, and that after the war ends, there must be national reconciliation.

I asked Maarouf, a Sunni Muslim, what he would say to his Alawite neighbors. “All of the Syrian people have the right to live and be free in Syria,” with no discrimination between Sunni and Alawite, he answered. After Assad is replaced as president, he continued, some Syrians should be prosecuted for war crimes — including Sunni extremists who have slaughtered Alawite civilians, as well as regime fighters who killed Sunnis. That’s a message that Syrians need to hear.

Corrupt warlords have plundered the northern areas “liberated” by the rebels from Assad, and public anger at this thievery helped al-Qaeda forces gain recruits. Here, again, Maarouf offered sound strategies: In the areas of Idlib his fighters control, he says he has established courts and prisons to suppress crime, and he tried to restore public services where possible. He can’t reopen schools, he cautions, because of fears that the regime would bomb the children gathered for classes.

The Obama administration is weighing whether to expand its aid for the moderate opposition. The CIA is training about 250 fighters a month in Jordan; these fighters operate mostly in southern Syria under the FSA’s overall commander, Abdul-IIlah al-Bashir, who is from Quneitra near the Israel border. Opposition supporters want to double this training program by establishing a camp at an air base in a friendly Gulf state where U.S. Special Forces soldiers could train and equip FSA fighters for counterterrorism operations. This expansion of training makes sense; President Obama should approve it.

Syrian moderate fighters will need better weapons to protect civilians from Assad’s forces and extremists, alike. The opposition has made a reasonable request for heavy-caliber machine guns that could attack Syrian helicopters. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is ready to supply shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down Syrian fighter jets. The missiles are in Jordan, awaiting U.S. approval for distribution.

The United States is right to worry that such powerful weapons could fall into the wrong hands. But Maarouf appears to be the kind of commander the United States and its allies will need to trust — and provide with enough firepower to protect Syrian civilians and fight extremists — in the long wait for a political solution to this horrifying conflict.

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