Syrians protest against al-Qaeda in Idlib, break into jihadi headquarters

Protesters in Maarat al-Numan show their support to the Syrian revolution. File photo

ARA News 

HOMS – Hundreds of people took to the street in the Syrian northwestern Idlib province on Monday, denouncing what they described “aggression of the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda branch in Syria) against civilians and moderate rebels”.  

Local sources confirmed that angry protesters have broken into Nusra headquarters in the town of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib province and burned a few buildings.  

Speaking to ARA News in Maarat al-Numan, rights activist Samer Idlibi said that the protest came two days after the Nusra insurgents stormed headquarters of the Division 13— which operates under the banner of the Syrian Free Army (FSA)—where clashes claimed lives of dozens of fighters on both sides.

“Division 13 is an FSA group that is backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and received U.S.-delivered TOW anti-tank rockets,” Nusra member Abu Saeed al-Holandi told ARA News in Idlib. The TOW-rockets played a major role in expelling the Syrian government from the province of Idlib. 

However, the Nusra group was able to take over several headquarters belong to Syrian FSA rebels, despite the latter’s call for bringing both parties before a legitimate court, according to rebel source.

“The protest, which included women and children, roamed the city’s streets under the protection of  FSA rebels,” media activist Mohammed Fawzo told ARA News, pointing out “the protesters forced the Nusra militants to release four civilians who were detained by the group last week.” 

“The angry protesters stormed several headquarters of the Nusra without any intervention from the militants,” an eyewitness told ARA News, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The Nusra insurgents were trying to absorb people’s ire in Maarat al-Numan,” the source reported.

Some of the Nusra headquarters were completely burned by the furious people of Idlib. The Nusra insurgents had captured headquarters of Syrian rebels two days ago and raised their black banners on the buildings’ tops.

The FSA rebel groups and the Nusra militants did not escalate the tension and remained calm during the protest. However, local sources expected the Nusra Front to come back strongly, with additional reinforcements to the region.

Al-Qaeda Clashes with FSA 

The U.S.-backed FSA-group ‘Division 13’ launched raids on the Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) on Saturday after tensions between opposition supporters and Nusra in Idlib last Friday.

Nusra Front said it would do everything necessary to defend areas under its control in northern Syria, after being attacked by the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) group on Saturday.

Division 13 shares a presence with the Nusra Front in several areas in northern Syria.

“In an unexpected step, and in a difficult time in the blessed Syrian revolution, all were surprised by the faction ‘Division 13’ raiding the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra in the city of Maarat al-Numan,” said the Nusra front in an official statement. 

“And they were not sufficed with that; rather they (as well) raided some of the houses of members of Jabhat al-Nusra in the city,” the Nusra front said. 

“We don’t attack the FSA, and they fought the regime. The province of Idlib is almost completely liberated from the regime, apart from two small villages,” the Nusra fighter Abu Saeed al-Holandi told ARA News. 

However, supporters of the FSA accuse the Nusra Front of attacking anti-regime protests, following the cessation of hostilities on 27 February. 

“There is a lot of popular anger within the opposition over Jabhat al-Nusra’s aggressive activities toward more secular-oriented demonstrators, which has led to calls for action from within the moderate opposition for protesters to be protected from Jabhat al-Nusra,” said Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security.

“Division 13 is one of the most influential rebel groups in northern Syria and it has significant tensions with Jabhat al-Nusra over how to build governance in rebel-ruled areas,” he added.

Experts suspect that more clashes will erupt in the province of Aleppo between FSA groups and the Nusra Front.

“These clashes are the result of long-boiling anger within the armed opposition as a result of Jabhat al-Nusra trying to muscle into the moderate armed opposition’s turf, and from it trying to dominate civil society in rebel-ruled areas,” Heras told ARA News.

The Nusra front called on the FSA to stop the internal fighting. 

“And we call upon all of the wise ones to rectify the situation to save the blood, and to correct the direction of the rifles of the Mujahideen,” Nusra said in the officially released statement.

But it will be difficult for the FSA to stop the fight with Nusra due to Western pressure on the FSA to push them to fight against Jihadist groups. 

“The moderate rebels are under a lot of pressure to demonstrate that they can confront al-Qaeda and prevent it from entrenching its power in rebel-controlled Syria,” Heras added.

“The two have long been competing for influence there and in the surrounding areas. As long as the truce persists and demonstrations continue, clashes will continue,” Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, research fellow at the Middle East Forum, told ARA News. 

“There will be localized clashes, but not necessarily full-blown civil war. In Maarat al-Numan it’s easier to take on Nusra as Division 13 is stronger and there isn’t a Jaysh al-Fatah administration,” he added. 

Reporting by: Haitham Mustafa

Source: ARA News

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