During the truce, another aspect of the revolution reared its head: the conflict between the activists and Jabhat al-Nusra. This conflict reached its peak in 2015, when media activists in Kafranbel were arrested, and in October 2015, when a demonstration emerged against the group in Maarat al-Nouman. The protesters chanted, “our revolution was peaceful like an olive branch, and was stolen by you.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, has not and can never be united with the Syrian people in their struggle for freedom and democracy. While apologists will claim that Nusra is different than Da’esh in its ideology and actions on the ground, the reality is that their goals bear no resemblance to the ideals of freedom and democracy for Syrians.
Today, the number of Syrians who are aware of the danger presented by Nusra is the highest it has been since al-Nusra entered the scene in 2012, claiming to protect the opposition from Assad. While earlier, many Syrians may have sympathized with Nusra, the extremism of their project has since been exposed. 104 protests were recorded on Friday of the Revolution Continues, with no militant or sectarian slogans. There was no call of hatred and the tables were turned on the Islamists who had used the popular resentment amongst the people to their advantage. In Maarat al-Nouman, Idlib, the Friday of the Revolution Continues led to the arrest of several protestors at the hands of al-Nusra, who also ripped the flags of the revolution. The reaction, from many members of civil society and the public, was one of anger and discontent.
The Clashes and Takeover
On Friday (11 March 2016), titled "The Renewal of Our Vow", saw demonstrations in Maarat al Nouman calling for al-Nusra to release Humam Hazir, one of the activists detained a week prior. Al-Nusra responded by raiding the protest with its motorcycles and attempting to disperse the protesters. The leaders of the protest changed what they were chanting from anti-Assad slogans to ones of Syrian unity, in an attempt to contain the incident.
Following that, Nusra raided the headquarters of Division 13 of the FSA in Maarat al-Nouman in an attempt to take control of the city, following the Daesh handbook of attacking cities controlled by the armed opposition. “They entered, brigade following brigade, until they could take over the village by themselves. After a while, they began to patrol the streets in Idlib and its countryside, and execute those they deemed guilty,” according to Mizar Matar.
The Different Kinds of al-Nusra
It was not only the general Syrians population who sympathized with al-Nusra in its infancy, but a number of intellectuals who found in it an alliance which was necessary yet temporary to overthrow the regime. They forgot the bloody history of the Islamists, who forge these alliances in order to overtake and exclude. (See, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.) Within these Islamist circles, pluralism is ultimately the enemy of the peoples’ freedom. As for al-Nusra, their only ideology is to “fight the opposition, steal their weapons, rather than battle the regime and its militias. They only do performances and displays of strength and they view the liberated cities as theirs for the taking. They view their specialty as stopping the protests against Assad and dispersing them, disrespecting the independence flag and arresting activists, while also claiming Daesh are their siblings,” writes Mujahid Alshami.
Nusra is not just a political movement who can be tolerated by the community, as there is a difference “between the general Salafi movement, which has the right to express themselves within the national framework and the Salafist fascist-led al-Qaeda and similar organization, which target minorities and Muslims,” writes Imad Abbar.
The Popular Movement
The expulsion of Nusra in Syria is something in which the majority of Syrians are in favor. “The people of Syria rejected their ideas in their banners, despite the publicity and propaganda that al-Nusra pumped out in Syria during the past four years, calling for holy war and the extermination of the “Nusayris” and the application of religious law. The Syrian people quickly discovered that these slogans are no different than those about the one Arab nation,” writes Rami Sweidan.