One day in mid-October Jamal Maaruf and the men of Shuhada Suriya heard the sound of explosions to the south. They inquired with contacts and learned that fighters aligned with Afif Suleiman’s Idlib Military Council were attacking regime positions in Maarat al-Numan, a small city just west of the M5 Highway and south of the rebel-held hills of Jebel al-Zawiyah. Maaruf and his men gathered their weapons and joined the fight. Within 24 hours, the rebels pushed the regime out of Maarat al-Numan, extending the rebel held section of the M5 highway further south. The fighting then shifted to the Wadi Deif military base just east of the highway while the rebels simultaneously fought off armored convoys approaching from military bases in Hama and endured constant air attacks. Maaruf’s brother Muhamed, a mid-level Shuhada Suriya field commander, died in the fighting.
As the battle raged on, Suleiman arranged a meeting of the rebel groups involved. Maaruf claimed that Suleiman offered to come visit Maaruf to discuss the plan but Maaruf insisted that he come to Suleiman as a sign of respect, recognizing that Suleiman outranked him in the loose rebel command structure. Maaruf claims that he tried to work with Suleiman, providing fighters and even two tanks. After the rebels failed to capture the base and Maaruf’s ammunition ran low, he pulled some of his fighters back to their villages, an action that angered rebels still fighting in Maarat al-Numan (The Shuhada Maarat al-Numan Battalion, part of Shuhada Suriya, stayed behind).
The criticism became a source of concern for Maaruf, who responded with a long statement on Shuhada Suriya’s Facebook page claiming that he did all he could, working with Suleiman until his supplies ran low. At the end of the statement, however, came a direct challenge. Maaruf claimed that if those supporting Suleiman would send Shuhada Suriya “half the weapons” sent to Suleiman, he would take Wadi Deif, implying that Suleiman had mismanaged the siege.
The relationship between Suleiman and Maaruf has evolved over the past year. During late-Spring 2012, Maaruf, then leader of the Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah Battalion, the forerunner of Shuhada Suriya, operated under the umbrella of Suleiman’s military council. The relationship with fruitful as the battalion captured checkpoints across Jebel al-Zawiyah. With Shuhada Jebel al-Zawiyah’s late summer expansion into the Shuhada Suriya Brigades, Maaruf became independent of the council.
Shuhada Suriya is one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, recently posting a video of the largest known gathering of Syrian rebels to date. Despite Maaruf’s celebrity, however, he is unable to attract the level of financial and material support that Suleiman, the provincial council leader, receives. This is not a bad thing. Provincial councils can only assert control of rebel groups if they control money and weapons. But when council operations are not successful, rebel leaders will question the councils' control, a drawback of the rebels' loose command structure.