BEIRUT — Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria is a menacing force, overpowering moderate rebels even as it battles government troops. But in recent weeks, Jabhat al-Nusra has provoked a backlash that appears to be undermining its formidable power.
Residents of opposition-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria have protested the group’s heavy-handed tactics. Its fighters have been forced to withdraw from a town in the area because of mounting anger over their attack on a popular U.S.-supported rebel group and attempts to disrupt anti-government rallies.
Syria’s messy civil war has empowered Jabhat al-Nusra and other radicals, but analysts say the unusual outburst of frustration against the Islamist group signals that moderate voices have not been silenced.
Moreover, the analysts note, a string of battlefield defeats suffered by the Islamic State — Jabhat al-Nusra’s rival — further demonstrates that the religious hard-liners are hardly invincible.
“We are seeing the beginning of unprecedented public expressions of protest, anger and resistance to Nusra, and this could easily climax into a popular revolt,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and an expert on Islamist movements.
In its quest to replace the Syrian government with an Islamist regime, Jabhat al-Nusra has overcome grave setbacks in the past.
A number of its members defected to the Islamic State, which eventually overshadowed its al-Qaeda-linked predecessor by declaring a caliphate in 2014 in territory it captured in Iraq and Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra militants have faced intense airstrikes from a U.S.-led military coalition and from Russia, which intervened in the conflict on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And yet, Jabhat al-Nusra has grown in power, winning grudging respect among many Syrians as effective fighters against Assad’s forces. Careful not to anger people, the group’s Syrian and foreign-born militants have avoided the brutality meted out by the Islamic State. They have a reputation for honesty. And with ample arms and cash, the group has smashed opposition rivals seen as corrupt and weak, including rebels who have received U.S. antitank weapons.
Few rebels would dare provoke clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra, analysts say. Groups battling the Assad government regularly find themselves fighting on the same side as the al-Qaeda franchise, and they probably want to avoid confrontation with its militants because that “would likely prove very costly to the wider rebellion,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies Syria’s extremist groups.
But now, Jabhat al-Nusra is losing support in Idlib, where its fighters and allied Islamist militants hold considerable influence.
Residents accuse the group of applying increasingly rigid interpretations of Islam, such as strict gender segregation in public places, executions of adulterers and seizures of the property of non-Muslims.
Last summer, the militants reportedly shot dead more than a dozen members of Syria’s Druze religious minority. That incident drew rebukes even from other Islamist rebel fighters allied with the group.
“We’re all feeling like we’re suffocating now because of Nusra, which is acting like ISIS,” said a prominent activist based in Idlib, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns. ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.
A catalyst for the recent rallies against the group appears to be rooted in the cease-fire agreement brokered by Russia and the United States to foster peace talks in Geneva. A second round of those talks began Wednesday.
The cease-fire agreement excludes Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, an attempt to drive a wedge between the extremists and other Syrians. And it may be working, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.
“The moderate opposition and Nusra have common goals in that they want to fight Assad, but with this cessation of hostilities coming in effect, the differences between them are showing,” he said.
Attacks by government warplanes declined after the cease-fire took hold, though the truce now looks on the verge of collapse. Residents in several opposition-held areas across the country have taken advantage of the lull to stage anti-government demonstrations. On March 11, scores of people in Maarat al-Numan held a nationalist rally, with people waving the flags of Syria’s opposition and chanting the revolutionary slogans of the country’s initially nonviolent uprising of 2011.
Jabhat al-Nusra Islamists responded by storming the protest on motorcycles, attempting to break up the rally, which espoused nationalist principles at odds with the group’s rigid Islamist beliefs. The following day, the militants targeted a popular rebel faction involved in the demonstration, a Free Syrian Army group known as Division 13, arresting its members and seizing weapons.
Then the situation escalated dramatically.
Division 13 rebels fought back but lost, with a number of them arrested or killed by Jabhat al-Nusra militants. Then hundreds of residents from the village, including children, came to Division 13’s defense. They held large rallies, stormed buildings used by Jabhat al-Nusra and defaced the group’s symbols.
The protesters, who were shown in footage posted on social media setting fire to the militants’ facilities, eventually forced the group to leave town. In a snub to Jabhat al-Nusra, even allied Islamist rebels took part in the demonstrations.
Its all-powerful image shaken, Jabhat al-Nusra agreed to arbitration from an Islamic court to resolve the dispute with Division 13.
“Under pressure from Nusra, the people have become angry. It intervenes in their lives, forcing their own agenda on people. So when the problems with Division 13 happened, all the people exploded in anger against Nusra and in support of us,” said Zakaria Quitaz, a spokesman for Division 13.
Jabhat al-Nusra has since released the detained Division 13 fighters, the rebel force has confirmed. But more public outbursts against the al-Qaeda wing seem possible, if not probable, especially if Syria’s partial truce manages to hold.
“Nusra is pretending not to be like ISIS, which it is. This makes them hypocrites,” said a lawyer in Maarat al-Numan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
“At least with ISIS, they’re honest about what they do.”
Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.