There’s growing hostility between al-Qaida’s branch in Syria and the locals of Idlib. After attempting to disrupt popular protests in the streets of Maarat al-Numan last week, the insurgent group then pushed a popular branch of the Free Syrian Army out of town
Hundreds took to the streets in Idlib on Monday to protest the aggression by al-Nusra Front against civilians and rebel groups in the area, highlighting the increasingly tenuous situation for the al-Qaida-linked group, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, since popular protests returned to Syria’s streets last week.
Protesters stormed the Nusra Front offices in the city of Maarat al-Numan on Monday, burning several buildings and tearing down black jihadi flags in response to the Salafist group’s attack on anti-government demonstrations that flared up after the U.S.-Russian-backed cease-fire went into place on February 27.
Since its formation five years ago, Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently been one of the most problematic players in the Syrian conflict. As early as 2013, just one year after its establishment in Syria, the group began to gain attention for battling with fellow rebel groups.
In mid-September 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra launched a military campaign in Mount Zawiya against the Syria Revolutionaries Front led by Jamal Maarouf, and broke the group apart. Although this faction was well known for its harassment of those living in areas under its control, Jabhat al-Nusra is considered no better in terms of its treatment of people.
The main difference between the two factions is that Jabhat al-Nusra is a transnational Islamist group, while the Syria Revolutionaries Front is nationally focused and fights in the name of Syria and the revolution.
When the military campaign took place, other rebel groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) and al-Jabha al-Shamiya (the Levant Front), observed the fighting without taking a stance.
In early 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra launched yet another military campaign, this time against the Hazzm Movement, once one of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) strongest factions in the province of Hama.
Regardless of what some deemed to be the movement’s problematic source of financing, particularly its relationship with the U.S., the Hazzm Movement fought alongside the FSA in an attempt to form a new Syria, not an Islamic ummah (community). During that time, the “Ikhwat al-Manhaj” did not react: Al-Jabha al-Shamiya watched and did nothing as the al-Nusra Front raided areas controlled by Hazzm, confiscating weapons and anti-armor missiles.
Ikhwat al-Manhaj (Brethren of the Right Path) is a term used among Salafist jihadist groups in an attempt to unify through a collective philosophy: fighting Islam’s enemies and eradicating anti-Islamic values. It is not a group or a faction; it is simply a term they use among themselves. For example, Ahrar al-Sham might refuse to fight Jaish al-Islam because they consider them to be Ikhwat al-Manhaj.
But the recent protests in Maarat al-Numan make it necessary to reassess the group’s role within the crisis.
The protests seem to have changed the way the world deals with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist jihadist groups. Analysts are less focused on al-Nusra itself than on the way in which the Ikhwat al-Manhaj deal with the Front’s attacks on other rebel factions fighting under the banner of the revolution.
On Friday March 4, demonstrations reminiscent of the early days of the Syrian uprising occurred in over 100 different opposition-controlled areas across the country. Under the slogan “The Friday of the revolution continues,” protesters unfurled the revolutionary flags they had kept hidden since Islamist factions gained control over these areas, streaming through the streets and calling for the fall of the Assad government.
Major leaders of the FSA like Fares al-Bayoush and Ahmed Saoud appeared in the streets with well known-activists to lead the protest, posing a serious challenge to the image of al-Nusra’s control in the area. Just weeks earlier, al-Nusra issued a ban throughout Idlib on all flags other than the black and white Islamic flags.
Al-Nusra militants confronted the protest organizers in the days that followed, detaining some and intimidating others.
“Maarat was a turning point for us in Idlib,” one FSA leader told Islamist expert Charles Lister in an interview. “The people have been emboldened. The Friday protests proved that our revolution is stronger than ever, and al-Qaeda cannot stop that.”
On the following Friday, March 11, protesters were in the streets of Maarat al-Numan again, demanding al-Nusra release activist Humam Hazir, who had been detained by the group a week earlier. Al-Nusra militants responded by crashing the protest, waving black flags and attempting to break up the demonstration. Leaders of the demonstrations quickly changed their chants from slogans calling for the fall of the regime to chants aimed at Syrian unity.
In the days that followed, al-Nusra raided the headquarters and facilities of the Division 13, a capable and popular branch of the FSA, arresting some of its members and taking over its weapons storehouses.
Al-Nusra Front now faces two opponents: the resurgent revolutionary movement within its own areas, and the international community, which considers al-Nusra to be a terrorist group. And while the rejection of al-Nusra within Syria has gained momentum over time, the return of popular protests to Syrian streets has increased local pressure on the group.
The group is in a bind: if it embraces the demands of the protestors, it will have to let go of its original religious project and its focus on jihad to form an Islamic ummah. If it rejects the protests, it will face mounting domestic hostility. In other words, al-Nusra has to choose between either repressing the demonstrations and losing support, or embracing them and adopting a nationally focused agenda.
What happened in Maarat al-Numan is a result of Jabhat al-Nusra’s struggle to find a way out of this loop. But it is very much possible that what happened there will spread to other areas of Idlib. Areas like Mount Zawiya and the city of Atarib, where the Free Syrian Army enjoys strong popular support, are locations likely to give al-Nusra trouble in the near future.
What could eventually resolve the situation is the position of Ikhwat al-Manhaj, including the units known as Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, particularly because many of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders joined the protests. But only time will tell whether the resurgence of the revolution can overcome Islamist ideology. Will the revolution bow again to the Salafists? Or will Syria witness the return of the revolutionary spirit that has been marginalized for five years?
It is all in the hands of those living within the liberated areas who are protesting against al-Nusra and who support the Free Syrian Army. It is up to them to expel all foreign elements and ideologies, especially those who use Islam to mask their own agendas.
Ali Melhem is a contributor to Rozana Radio, a local Syrian station.