The leader of a Syrian rebel group feted as an alternative to the tide of Islamism which dominates most other rebel brigades has said he has no interest in fighting Al Qaeda.
Jamal Maarouf's Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF) had received cautious support from western powers for its prominent role in fighting Al Qaeda-breakaway group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), but speaking to Britain's The Independent he clarified that as far as he was concerned the wider fight against Al Qaeda is "not our problem".
Moreover, Maarouf - who has been forced to flee the front lines in Syria to neighboring Turkey out of fear of assassination by ISIS - says his forces have often fought side-by-side with the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), Al Qaeda's official franchise in Syria.
He clarified that his problem with ISIS was that it was dominated by foreign fighters, and had been more interested in imposing its own brutal rule on Syrians than in fighting the regime. Indeed, the group's tactics were deemed too brutal even for Al Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who officially severed ties with ISIS.
"It’s clear that I’m not fighting against Al Qaeda," Maarouf said. "This is a problem outside of Syria’s border, so it’s not our problem. I don’t have a problem with anyone who fights against the regime inside Syria."
Perhaps more worryingly for western state, he admits to having "shared" his arms with Islamist fighters at times, most notably during the bloody battle for Yabroud, which eventually fell to regime forces backed by Hezbollah - though not before inflicting severe casualties to pro-regime forces.
"If the people who support us tell us to send weapons to another group, we send them. They asked us a month ago to send weapons to Yabroud so we sent a lot of weapons there. When they asked us to do this, we do it," Maarouf stated.
The news comes as a blow to western states, who view the SRF as the last major bastion of "moderates" within the Syrian rebel movement, in contrast to Islamist groups ranging from Salafi and Al Qaeda-linked groups such as ISIS, the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, to the larger Islamic Front.
But Maarouf, who claims to command 24,000 fighters, says that apart from a one-off payment of $250,000, western support has not been very forthcoming. "We have received lots of promises from the US, but so far nothing more," he said.
Instead, much of the SRF's support comes from Saudi Arabia, which has been accused of leveraging its involvement in the Syrian civil war to promote an Islamist agenda.