REYHANLI — At the beginning of this year, Jamal Maarouf was regarded as the new white knight of the Syrian insurrection. Over the course of just a few days in January, Maarouf and his men drove ISIS jihadists out of northern Syria's Idlib province. Armed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF) embodied the hope that the moderate rebels could make a powerful comeback. His troops were also reported to be among the direct beneficiaries of the plan President Barack Obama announced in September, aimed at training several thousand Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS.
But the project will need to be revised. In late October, Maarouf's organization collapsed under the battering of the al-Nusra Front, Syria's "other" Islamist force and al-Qaeda affiliate. With their leading role in the fight against the Syrian regime and its allies, al-Nusra seized most of SRF's bases in Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountainous region south of Idlib. Among other things, the assailants took Maarouf's underground headquarters, which were dug into the rocks of the village Deir Soundbol to resist the Syrian army's airstrikes.
According to the information network Cham, Maarouf fled to Turkey along with many of his fighters, though others preferred to join al-Nusra. The defeat is symbolic of the rebellion's scarce hopes in northern Syria.
"Al-Nusra want to create their own emirate," says Abou Ali, an SRF fighter installed in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border. "They want to seize territory to emulate ISIS."
A former construction worker, Maarouf was one of the first to take up arms in the Idlib province. As leader of the Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, a group founded in 2011, he helped chase government forces away from this region.
Though a conservative like most in the Syrian countryside, Maarouf is neither a Salafist nor a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike many of his peers in the rebellion. His warrior's aura, however, has been stained little by little by accusations of corruption. He allegedly embezzled funds from his Saudi sponsors for personal gain. His rivals nicknamed him Jamal Makhlouf, a reference to Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian economy's biggest predator.
The beginning of the end
The first disputes with the al-Nusra Front date back to early 2014, soon after the creation of Maarouf's Syria Revolutionaries Front, a coalition of some 15 brigades. At the time, the two groups were arguing over control of oil contraband with neighboring Turkey. But when it appeared in early summer that the SRF was among the groups receiving anti-tank missiles from Washington, the rivalry became ideological. The jihadists then started to see Maarouf's organization as an embryo of the Sons of Iraq, Iraqi Sunni militias that the United States had rallied in Iraq to defeat al-Qaeda.
The jihadists' fear that the rebels might attack them grew bigger in September, when the U.S. Air Force hit their positions in their war against ISIS. "The United States went about it the wrong way," says one European diplomat. "The bombing boosted al-Nusra's status in the freed areas. In a context of aggravation of anti-Shia feelings, the movement also benefits from its opposition to Hezbollah. It is more in tune with the streets than Maarouf, who discredited himself with his excesses."
Al-Nusra used this popularity to carve out a new stronghold for themselves. After ISIS expelled them during the summer from the Deir ez-Zor province, the group needed to find a new territorial anchorage. And in a sign that their offensive in Jabal al-Zawiya wasn't just score-settling with the SRF, their forces also took the headquarters of Harakat Hazm, another Washington-backed armed group.
The Syrian branch of al-Qaeda is now posted a few kilometers from Bab al-Hawa, a crucial border crossing for the opposition, near the Turkish town of Reuhanli. "Al-Nusra are behaving more and more like ISIS," says Mohammed Aboud, a commander in the Free Syrian Army, the moderate branch of the rebellion. "Their men are going to crush us one after the other if we do nothing. We don't have a choice. We must attack."
This point of view is not at all universally shared among the rebels. Most armed groups in norther Syria choose to remain neutral, because they fear the al-Nusra Front, or because they are reluctant to rescue Maarouf, or finally because they intend to focus primarily on Aleppo, which the Syrian army is about to surround.
"We have no sympathy for al-Qaeda," insists Fares Bayoush, leader of Regiment 5, a new group that is also sponsored by the United States. "We even think that we're on their blacklist. But we think it's not wise to open a third front, after that against the regime and that against ISIS."
In a Reyhanli cafeteria, Abou Ali flexes his muscles. As a good SRF soldier, he swears the group will regain Jabal al-Zawiya. But his pledge rings false. For him and his fellow fighters, languid on a bench, their eyes fixed on the television set, war seems to be over. And most of all, lost.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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