The Nusra Front’s Impossible Position

The city of Maarat al-Num’an in Idlib Province is continuing its revolt against the Syrian regime and extremist groups like the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, and Jund al-Aqsa group. The dynamics between Nusra trying to impose control and Sharia law on the city, and the locals resisting it, give insight into the armed group’s complex position as a group that locals respect for its military prowess but reject for its extremist ideology.

Maarat al-Nu’man is passing its hundredth day of regular protests since Friday March 3, 2016 when hundreds took to the streets chanting the first slogans of the Syrian revolution such as “The People Want to Overthrow the Regime,” “Syria needs freedom,” “God, Syria, Freedom Only,” among others. However, that day marked a turning point—it was not the regime who attacked the demonstrators but rather followers of the Nusra Front who attacked anti-Assad protesters and shouted slogans against the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Those events did not deter the protestors from continuing their movement and on Friday, March 11, they returned to the squares again chanting against the regime and Nusra. Supporters of Nusra burst into that demonstration and chanted slogans such as, “The Free Syrian Army is a thief. We need an Islamic army,” and other anti-FSA slogans, specifically targeting the FSA armed unit 13th Division that controls the city, and which is supported by the United States and other international backers.

Those events do not appear to be unusual in Idlib’s new reality, when Jaysh al-Fateh, a coalition of armed opposition groups, seized the city from regime forces. According to many residents, liberation changed nothing save appearance: the repression is the same and only the parties are different. The Nusra Front frequently interferes in people’s affairs in Maarrat al-Nu’man and Idlib countryside, going so far as to pass new laws for school students and imposing what it calls a Sharia dress code for female students in primary schools in some areas of Idlib.

Previously, Nusra did not openly attack protestors, realizing that doing so would hurt its popularity. On the contrary, it kept hidden its decision to storm the city and loot the 13th Division’s equipment, which it did because it is a large FSA group that enjoys widespread public support in Idlib. Nusra stormed the city on the March 13, seized the Division’s military equipment, took some of them prisoner, and then withdrew after two days. To date, they have not accounted for any of the seized equipment.

During that same period of time, Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa held a meeting, in which one of the latter’s leaders was given command of the joint campaign. This commander called for the killing of anyone who took up arms against the two extremist factions. For Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa, this command essentially legalized the killing of anyone associated with the FSA.

These developments precipitated the current situation in Maarat al-Nu’man. Daily protests began against al-Nusra, Jund al-Aqsa, and the Syrian regime. The protests against Nusra were specifically in response to its claim that it took over the city as a response to 13th Division attacking Nusra supporters and killing Abu Yahya al-Ansari, a Nusra Front leader. Al-Ansari was killed during Nusra’s attack on 13th Division’s headquarters in the al-Ghadiqa, (located on the outskirts of Maarat al-Nu’man). 13th Division denies all these accusations.

Because of the attacks on 13th Division and attempts to impose new laws on residents, Nusra began to lose its popularity in local circles. The local population continued to support Maarat’s protestors and put pressure on Nusra. In response, the extremist group yielded and released some of the 13th Division’s fighters, but the popular resistance movement against it did not slow. On March 18, one of the protests saw a new slogan calling for the overthrow of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the Nusra Front’s leader. At that protest, Syrian women took to the streets as well in support of the demonstrators’ movement in against the extremists.

According to activists in the town, Nusra aims to take complete control of Maarat al-Nu’man and seize 13th Division’s weapons, specialized gear, and service projects. During the month of March, Nusra imprisoned fifty people from Maarat including activists and 13th Division fighters. Continued public pressure forced Nusra to later release all of them. Individual civil society activists worked with local groups to coordinate the protests, including the Popular Gathering for the Revolutionary Movement, Consultative Assembly for the Forces and Movement of the Revolution, and the popular resistance committees. These entities condemned Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa for arresting and abducting activists including Hassan al-Shihab, Ahmed Abdeen, and Hassan Matramawi.

Despite Nusra’s acceptance of partial acquiescence to these demands, the dispute between its followers and the 13th Division has persisted. It has not given up on its goal of controlling Maarat al-Nu’man, which possesses strategic significance in Idlib Province. After the revolt against the Syrian regime in 2011, the city became a symbol for the peaceful resistance and a gathering point for the residents of the eastern and western parts of the province who opposed the regime. The regime lost control of Maarat and the surrounding region in October 2012, after which it fell into the hands of various opposition factions, and later became the main headquarters for members of the 13th Division. Maarat is also located on the main highway connecting Idlib city to Hama, and at a major crossroads connecting east and west Idlib province.

During the continued protests in Maarat al-Nu’man and back and forth between Nusra and the 13th Division, Russia and the regime have both bombed the city has been bombed several times. The bombing was particularly intense in April, during which the city’s local council and doctors announced the town had become “a health disaster.” On its Facebook page, the local council stated “that the announcement came because of damage to the sewage lines, sewage leaks into surface wells, and contamination of the aquifer, after which there were many disease outbreaks, most recently typhoid fever.”

Daily protests in the city continued nonetheless. On June 5, protestors raised blank banners to express that, in view of the crimes of all parties in Syria, there was nothing left to say. The residents of the town expressed that they will not retreat and refrain from street demonstrations unless their demands are met and the Nusra Front and Jund al-Aqsa leave the city and its residents to manage their affairs as they see fit.

After more than a hundred days of protest, Nusra is still striving to impose its ideas on Syrian society; yet it finds itself in a paradoxical position since imposing its ideology undermines its popularity and incites residents to new protests.

Hasan Arfeh is a Syrian journalist for Radio Rozana based in Turkey

Image: PHOTO: Civilians on a motorbike drive along a street in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria, May 15, 2016. The text on the wall reads in Arabic, "Revolution until victory". REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi