ISTANBUL – Following the start of the U.S. and Russia-brokered ceasefire in February, civilians across the country took to the streets en masse to protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the first time since the start of the uprising.
Some of the most boisterous demonstrations were in Maarat al-Numan, just south of Idlib on the highway between Aleppo and Hama, which had also been the site of virulent anti-government protests in the summer of 2011.
Both times, in 2011 and 2016, the protests were violently suppressed.
This time, however, the crackdown was not by the Syrian government, but by al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its allied factions. In response, residents launched a “civil resistance campaign” against the group’s militant rule that has now lasted more than 100 days, making it one of the longest protests of its kind since 2011.
“Civil resistance in Syria is one of the most under-reported parts of the conflict; outsiders have this narrow view of the conflict as just a few armed groups killing each other,” Mulham Sameer, a Syrian activist and a co-organizer of the campaign, told Syria Deeply. “But the truth is, there are thousands of Syrians who still strongly believe in peaceful resistance. That is the spirit of our uprising.”
Some 80,000 people live in Maarat al-Numan, including a significant number of displaced Syrians who fled neighboring towns. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) gained full control of Maarat al-Numan in October 2012 following intense battles with the Syrian army.
But today demonstrators in Maarat al-Numan have more than one enemy to protest: ISIS, al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, all of whom are seen by civilians as equally terrifying as the Syrian government.
“We have enemies on all fronts now; our enemy is anyone who tries to suppress the Syrian people’s call for freedom and dignity,” Sameer said, “and just as we made the Syrian government realize that its warplanes and rockets can’t kill our hunger from freedom, it’s now al-Qaida’s turn to realize that.”
The current campaign against extremist factions began in early March, after an antigovernment demonstration in Maarat al-Numan was attacked by members of opposition faction Jaish al-Fatah (the Army of Conquest), an alliance of extremist rebel factions that includes Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa. They even went as far as burning the Syrian revolution flag and assaulting demonstrators.
A few days later, Jaish al-Fatah (JaF) imposed a ban on revolution flags and any other flags besides al-Nusra’s black flag in the city. On the same day, JaF forces attacked a major demonstration organized by members of the 13th Division of the FSA, a rebel group based in Maarat al-Numan and supported by the Syrian National Council, the opposition’s main political party. The group has publicly rejected the ideologies of both ISIS and al-Qaida along with their presence in Syria.
Residents of the town told Syria Deeply that Nusra militants avoided any clashes with the protesters, staying on the outskirts of the town where it has two checkpoints, but locals believe that JaF acted on Nusra’s orders. In many areas of opposition-controlled Syria, especially in rural Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra is now seen as a foreign power, which is why residents often side with the local FSA factions when clashes erupt with extremist groups.
“Al-Nusra and its allies couldn’t accept pro-revolution slogans, and tried to disperse the demonstration, arresting 50 protesters,” said Sameer. “It’s important to understand that the 13th Division is not like any rebel group in Idlib. It originated from Maarat al-Numan and its fighters are natives of the town. That’s why any assault on them is an assault on the locals.”
The arrests sparked outrage among local residents, who then transformed their demonstrations against the government into a campaign against extremist factions, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, titled: ‘‘Enough is Enough.’’
What began as a set of popular demonstrations has now turned into daily acts of civil resistance in Maarat al-Numan. Every day, dozens of residents gather in the town center and demand that Jabhat al-Nusra be held accountable for its alleged crimes, all arms be returned to the FSA-backed 13th Division and that all detainees be released.
The campaign’s organizers claim they are ensuring that all protests remain peaceful and that no violence is being used. Local activists distributed pamphlets, organized sit-ins and made placards, all calling for an end to extremism.
“We want justice for the 13th Division fighters, who are the sons, brothers and husbands of these protesters,” Abdalkader Laheb, journalist at the Syrian Revolution Network and a native of Maarat al-Numan, told Syria Deeply.
So far, the campaign has been granted only one of its demands. The last three demonstrators were freed earlier this week, more than four months after their arrest, Sameer said, but demonstrators have now taken on a bigger goal. “It’s no longer about the detained protesters or the killed 13th Division Fighters. We don’t want al-Nusra or any of its allies in our town, and the campaign will only end when all al-Qaida-affiliated factions leave,” Sameer said.
The campaign now aims to bring back the town’s spirit of peaceful resistance “after six years of bombardment, death and destruction,” Laheb said. “Our revolution is a peaceful one, and anyone who tries to hijack it by using intolerance, sectarianism or violence will be faced with our peaceful, yet firm resistance.”