Since it was established five years ago, Jabhat al-Nusra has consistently been one of the most problematic players in the Syrian conflict. Although it was established in early 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra only gained attention in late 2013, when it began its battles against the various factions of the Free Syrian Army. The recent protests held in Maarrat al-Numaan against Jabhat al-Nusra make it necessary to reassess the group’s role and performance. The protests seem to change the way the world deals with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist Jihadist groups. What catches the attention of analysts right now is not Jabhat al-Nusra itself as much as it is the way in which “Ikhwat al-Manhaj” [Brethren of the Right Path] deal with Jabhat al-Nusra’s battling against other factions who are fighting under the banner of the revolution.
In mid-September 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra launched a military campaign in Mount Zawiya against the so-called "Syria Revolutionaries Front," led by "Jamal Marouf,” and eliminated all of its members. Although this faction was known for its violations and for its harassment of people in the areas under its control, Jabhat al-Nusra was not any better in the way it dealt with people. The only difference was that Jabhat al-Nusra was an Islamist group without a national Syrian project, while the Syria Revolutionaries Front fought in the name of Syria and the revolution. When the military campaign took place, other fighting groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham [Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant] and al-Jabha al-Islamiyya [Levant Front] observed the fighting without taking a stance.
In early 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra launched a military campaign against the Hazm movement, one of the Free Syrian Army’s strongest factions that had fought against the regime in the province of Hama. Regardless of the movement’s problematic source of financing, and its strong relations with international players such as the U.S., Hazm fought under the banner of the revolution aiming to form a new Syria, and not an Islamic Ummah [Islamic community]. During that time, Ikhwat al-Manhaj did not show any reaction. Al-Jabha al-Shamiyya watched and did nothing while Jabhat al-Nusra raided the areas controlled by Hazm, and confiscated weapons and anti-armor missiles.
The recently applied cease-fire has led to some very interesting developments. We are not pointing here to the decrease in violence and destruction, but to the revival of the revolution in its early forms. Demonstrations permeate most areas not controlled by the Assad regime, and they carry neither the black nor white flags [of the Islamists], but the revolution flag that people had kept hidden since Islamist factions gained control over these areas. Jabhat al-Nusra is now facing two opponents; the resurgent revolutionary movement within its own areas, and the international community, which considers Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist group.
The rejection of Jabhat al-Nusra within Syria has gained momentum over time, and began with the 2013 and 2014 clashes mentioned above.
Jabhat Al-Nusra has entered a new phase in which it faces two threats-- on the one hand, the international community has excluded Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups like the Islamic State, Jund al-Aqsa, the Caucasus Emirate, and the Turkistan Islamic Party from the cease-fire agreement. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra is facing a revolutionary movement within its own territories that is calling for freedom, justice, and the overthrow of tyranny, whether it is political or religious.
It seems that Jabhat al-Nusra is stuck in an endless loop. If it embraces the demands of the protestors, it will have to let go of its original religious project that relies on Jihad to form an Islamic Ummah. If it rejects the revolution, it will have to face mounting internal hostility in addition to hostility from the international community that continues to target Jabhat al-Nusra and many other Salafist Jihadist groups. In other words, Jabhat al-Nusra has to choose between either repressing the demonstrations and therefore losing any support within the country, or embracing them and therefore dissolving into a new revolutionary project.
Jabhat al-Nusra’s recent reaction to the protests, which included repressing them and then attacking Division 13 of the Free Syrian Army in Maarrat al-Numaan has only escalated tensions with other fighting factions and added more pressure on the group.
What happened in Maarrat al-Numaan is a result of Jabhat al-Nusra’s struggle to find a way out of this loop. It is very much possible that what happened in Maarrat al-Numaan will expand to include other areas in Idlib. It also seems that Mount Zawiya and the city of Atarib, where the Free Syrian Army enjoys strong popular support, might be the locations that undermine the power of Jabhat al-Nusra in the area.
What could eventually resolve the situation is the position of “Ikhwat al-Manhaj,” including Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham, especially because many of Ahrar al-Sham’s leaders joined the protests in the streets. Which will triumph— the ideology and approach of the Islamists or the resurgent revolution? Will the revolution bow again to the Salafist ideologies? Or will this March witness the return of a revolution that has been marginalized for five years? It seems that it is all in the hands of those living within the liberated areas who are protesting against Jabhat 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 cover their own agendas.