[Originally published in Foreign Policy.]
ISKENDERUN, Turkey — The militia commander, a barrel-bodied man who hulks over his soldiers and playfully hurls epithets, was beaming. It was as if getting run out of his home base by al Qaeda was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Col. Ahmed Saoud, head of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Division 13, knelt in the antechamber of an underground infirmary in the Turkish port city of Iskenderun. But his mind was very much still back home as he calmly dictated orders to a deputy in Syria.
“My sheikh, you will make sure that tomorrow’s demonstration was bigger than today’s. Each day we will make them bigger,” Saoud instructed Sheikh Khaled, who had just been released after three days of detention by the Nusra Front, Syria’s powerful al Qaeda affiliate.
“God willing we’ll be back in a week and those animals, those donkeys from al Qaeda, will never return,” he declared.
For the past two weeks, the small rebel-controlled town in Idlib province has become the central battleground in a pitched power struggle between al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army, a confederation of nationalist militias that draws support from Western governments. It all began when Nusra Front fighters shut down a nationalist protest on March 11 – an act that escalated into full-blown clashes with Division 13, which al Qaeda eventually forced out of the town.
While the military confrontation is over for now, Saoud’s supporters in Maarat al-Nu’man are harnessing their public support in defiance of the dominant Nusra Front. FSA supporters have organized escalating protests of the town’s men and women against al Qaeda, sparking such anger at the jihadist group’s abuses that Nusra was forced to withdraw, at least temporarily. A religious court is deciding when and if either side can return. The fight is less about territory and military strength, where the Nusra Front still has a clear upper hand, than it is about legitimacy, popularity, and propaganda.
The FSA is gambling that it can leverage the popular backlash against the Nusra Front that followed the clash in Maarat al-Nu’man to argue that a popular nationalist revolution survives. For supporters of Syria’s original non-violent nationalist uprising, the entire project of fixing Syria is at stake. If the ragged coalition of activists and nationalist rebels who cooperate under the brand of the Free Syrian Army collapses, they say, Syria will be left with a bitter choice between two murderous and sectarian alternatives: Bashar al-Assad’s regime or Islamic fundamentalists.
Jihadists may have fared better on the battlefield because of their bigger budgets and unscrupulous tactics, FSA commanders claim, but they have failed to win the hearts and minds of liberated Syria’s civilians.
“How can they build their emirate if the people don’t want them?” Saoud asked.“When they see people waving our flag, it makes them crazy. Now Nusra is revealing itself, and its popularity is collapsing.”
In interviews at rebel safe houses and command posts in southern Turkey, FSA commanders and activists from across northern Syria said they believe that the current lull in fighting might represent the nationalist opposition’s last solid chance to take back momentum from the jihadists, who for several years have been the dominant force in the armed struggle against the Syrian government. Jihadist groups are better financed, better armed, and have been consolidating their command structures for years, while the fragmented patchwork of FSA factions has lost ground.
Russia has scaled back its military operations after a six-month campaign, and most of the non-jihadist rebel groups have stuck to a cease-fire with the government, allowing both sides to regroup while half-hearted negotiations take place in Geneva. The Nusra Front is not party to the cease-fire.
The partial cease-fire has also allowed for the resurgence of non-violent protest in rebel-held areas in northern Syria. Free from the constant threat of barrel bombs, artillery shells, and airstrikes, Syrians returned to the street to chant against Assad. In several towns they also hoisted the banner of the nationalist revolution, a tricolor Syrian flag with three stars. The Nusra Front had banned the revolutionary flag in areas under its control, and its cadres in Maraat al-Nu’man appeared incensed on March 11 when a crowd of thousands, emboldened by the cease-fire, renewed anti-government protests in the town center with nationalist poetry, chants for unity, and the nationalist revolutionary standard.
Al Qaeda fighters on motorcycles drove into the center of the demonstration and seized the microphone from a notable local poet. The demonstrators fought back and recaptured the microphone. On March 12, the Nusra Front set up checkpoints around Maraat al-Nu’man and arrested members of Division 13, the most popular FSA group in the town. Nusra surrounded Division 13 bases and demanded they surrender their weapons cache, which included anti-tank weapons supplied as part of the CIA’s covert train-and-equip mission.
So far, nothing about the confrontation was unusual. Hard-core Islamists in the Nusra Front have long outgunned the more secular, nationalist, Western-supported rebels. According to FSA officers, Nusra routinely harvests up to half the weapons supplied by the Friends of Syria, a collection of countries opposed to Assad, and has regularly smashed FSA factions that were corrupt and inefficient — or that Nusra thought were getting too strong or too popular.
What was different this time was the FSA’s reaction.
“We will fight and die rather than surrender our weapons,” a Division 13 officer told the Nusra Front, according to an activist who was in the barracks during the fight and subsequently fled to Turkey.
Seven fighters from Division 13 died and at least a dozen were wounded, Saoud said, in a fight that lasted all night. At least a dozen more men from Division 13 were taken prisoner. Nusra eventually won — in large measure because none of the other FSA factions in the town were willing to help their allies. Most prominent among the nearby FSA divisions that sat on their hands was another U.S.-backed faction, Fursan al-Haq, led by another Syrian Army defector, Col. Fares Bayyoush.
“I guess they were afraid that if they helped us, they’d be next on Nusra’s list,” Saoud scoffed.
With their weapons gone and survivors detained by Nusra, the rest of Division 13 fled. Another al Qaeda rout of the so-called moderate opposition was apparently complete.
But on March 13, the day after Division 13 was ejected from Maarat al-Nu’man, hundreds of residents took the town’s streets waving the nationalist flag of the original Syrian republic. Women and children drove Nusra out of the posts it had occupied and set them on fire. Rather than shoot civilians, Nusra fighters left town. The next day, an even bigger demonstration swept Maraat al-Nu’man. Men can be seen on videos climbing on walls and tearing down Nusra flags.
In official statements posted on Facebook, as well as in tweets by supporters, the Nusra Front derided the FSA for agreeing to a cease-fire, which it calls a “distraction from the real target” — the fight against the Syrian government. Nusra also tried to blame Division 13 for starting the firefight, but quickly backed away from that claim when evidence to the contrary surfaced. The al Qaeda affiliate quickly agreed to submit to arbitration by an ad hoc sharia court, which has ordered Nusra to release prisoners and return the weapons it took, although weeks later negotiations over the implementation of the ruling are still underway.
Three days after it conquered Maraat al-Nu’man, the Nusra Front had withdrawn its main fighting force from the town under pressure from the sharia court, and began releasing its prisoners from Division 13.
“Jabhat al-Nusra asks of all its members to hold their breath and maintain the highest degrees of patience,” said a Nusra Front statement, which urged calm and tried to point out that Assad and his allies were the biggest beneficiaries of internecine strife among the rebels.
The struggle over this remote Syrian city will reverberate as far away as Geneva. The non-jihadist factions negotiating in Switzerland hope to form the nucleus of a post-Assad Syria. But in order to credibly represent the opposition, they’ll have to shift the balance of power on the ground, where the far stronger Nusra Front often dictates the course of events in rebel-held areas.
Civilian activists in Idlib province also said that they wanted to reclaim the initiative after being sidelined during years of grinding fighting.
“The larger the number of protesters, the more pressure it puts on the armed factions,” said Ammar Sabbouh, a member of the Maraat al-Nu’man local council, speaking by telephone from the town.
About 150 people have joined the daily protests since the clashes — enough, he said, to rattle Nusra because it shows locals no longer fear them.
“Before the truce, people were afraid of barrel bombs, shells, bombs,” Sabbouh said. “Demonstrations lasted 15 minutes. Since the truce, the peaceful side of the revolution has gained strength.”
But Sabbouh is well aware that driving the Nusra Front from rebel-held areas is not so simple as returning power to the people. He cautioned that all the armed factions, including Nusra, had popular followings. Maraat al-Nu’man is one of a handful of towns famous for its nationalist, sometimes even secular, revolutionaries — but even there, some powerful clans are evenly divided between al Qaeda and the FSA. Meanwhile, many other towns in Idlib province passionately support the Nusra Front or other jihadi factions.
There had been little public objection when the Nusra Front had wiped out other U.S.-backed FSA factions in Idlib, as the groups had engaged in widespread corruption. Division 13, however, has a reputation for being fair and relatively uncorrupt. Its leader, Saoud, is a defector from the Syrian Army who was detained by the Islamic State in 2014. He is popular with his fighters, which he claims number 1,700 men.
But seasoned observers of the Syrian war caution that even if public opinion runs against Nusra — which might not even be the case — the al Qaeda affiliate’s unified command and compelling ideology suggest it will continue to play a dominant role.
“Nusra commands deep support,” said one Western official who meets regularly with emissaries of Syrian rebel factions, and who believes that Islamists from less extreme factions will eventually shift allegiance to Nusra. “They’re not going away anytime soon.”
It’s notable that Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful, nationalist-leaning jihadi group, has taken the FSA’s side in the latest dispute with Nusra. After the Nusra Front clashed with protesters, Ahrar al-Sham leaders tweeted that Syrians had the right to protest and carry flags of their choice. Many view Ahrar al-Sham, which supported the cease-fire, as a kingmaker group, with jihadist credibility but aspirations for national Syrian leadership.
Critics inside northern Syria say that the Nusra Front initially masked its intentions, but that over the last year and a half, residents in Idlib province have realized that al Qaeda is just as repressive as the Islamic State or the Syrian government.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Violations group sprung up in Idlib a year ago to track the Nusra Front’s use of kidnapping, torture, and child soldiers. Its founder, who lives in Turkey because he said he is wanted by Nusra, believes that the jihadists will ultimately alienate even conservative and religious Syrians.
“The more people learn about Nusra, the more they will reject them,” he said.
That’s the FSA’s hope as well.
“I have a strategy to set all Syria on fire against the extremists in Nusra, ISIS, and the regime,” Saoud said. “The demonstrations will teach other leaders how to break the fear of al Qaeda. The checkpoint of fear is being shattered.”