News / Middle East

    Syria Shaky Truce Allows for Rallies Against al-Qaida Branch

    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.
    FILE - Rebels from al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag, as they step on the top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base, Jan. 11, 2013.
    Associated Press

    With Syria's shaky cease-fire holding, peaceful protesters have yet again taken to the streets in opposition-held areas of the country. But this time, in addition to President Bashar Assad's government, they have another despised authority they seek to topple - al-Qaida's affiliate in the country, the oppressive Nusra Front.

    The developments have raised questions as to whether the al-Qaida branch can be sidelined - or in fact even completely eradicated - from any future scenarios for Syria.  

    In the northwestern province of Idlib, protesters recently set fire to an office belonging to the Nusra Front after major fighting in the area saw the al-Qaida-linked militants crush a division of the U.S.-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, which has become popular with residents in the town of Maaret al-Numan and elsewhere across the province.

    The nearly three-week truce - which excludes the Nusra Front and its rival, the Islamic State group, both designated by the United Nations as terrorist organizations - and the peace talks currently underway in Geneva between the Syrian government and Western-backed rebels have increased pressure on the Nusra Front.

    According to Charles Lister, a Middle East Institute fellow who has written a book on jihadist dynamics in the Syria conflict, the truce “was a test of exactly how much” the Nusra Front would succeed in casting itself as a political force and a heavyweight in the conflict.

    Apparently, not much.

    The Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra as it is known in Arabic, emerged in Syria in 2012, when the country's civil war was already in full swing, quickly establishing itself as the local power in scores of towns and villages in the country's north. But its battlefield strength waned in the face of the rival Islamic State group, which captured almost a third of Syria and neighboring Iraq when it blitzed across the region in the summer of 2014, and a myriad of other militant and rebel factions that took hold in the war-ravaged country.

    In the town of Maaret al-Numan, the Nusra Front has resorted to force against residents on several occasions.

    On March 4, Nusra Front members and supporters attacked a peaceful anti-government march, detaining several protesters. A week later, militants on motorbikes stormed another protest, beating up demonstrators and snatching away their three-color flags symbolizing the 2011 Syrian uprising against Assad.

    Then, on Saturday, the militants swept through the town again, this time capturing and detaining fighters from the popular 13th Division of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

    The townspeople had had enough.

    On Monday, a throng swarmed a Nusra Front building, tearing down the black-and-white Islamic banner from its facade. Protesters later torched an empty “security office” belonging to the Nusra Front.

    A town activist, who declined to give his name fearing for his life, said eight people from Maaret al-Numan and nearby areas have been killed. “The people say the Nusra Front is to blame,” he said.

    To justify its attack on the rebel 13th Division, the al-Qaida branch spread rumors, said another town activist who now lives in Turkey.

    One rumor was that rebel Col. Tayseer al-Samahee had stepped on a Nusra Front banner during a recent protest in Maaret al-Numan, he said. Another was that a rebel had raped the wife of Nusra Front member Abu Ishaq, said the activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for family members who still live in the town.

    After the rumor spread, scores of Nusra Front fighters drove into the town from the nearby Jabal al-Zawiya area to try and crush the rebels' 13th Division, he said.

    The division gained wide support among Syrians when it pulled out of residential areas after the Russian airstrikes' campaign began on Sept. 30, in an effort to spare the civilian population from being targeted.

    The Nusra Front pulled out of some areas but kept a presence in others, which were hit in airstrikes, angering locals, activist say.

    “Their presence gives justification to the (Syrian) regime and the Russians to bomb them,” said Ahmad, another activist who declined to give his last name, also in fear for his life.

    The Nusra Front “appears to have overstepped ... provoking a genuinely popular backlash against its increasingly domineering role in the conflict,” Lister said in an article for the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

    But despite being excluded from the cease-fire and the Geneva talks, the Nusra Front's recent actions have shown it will not be easily dislodged from Syria. It is deeply embedded in the armed opposition to Assad, and it holds sway over other rebel groups.

    The Nusra Front has thousands of battle-hardened, mostly Syrian fighters, and controls wide areas in Idlib province as well as other areas around Syria. They also have strong allies, such as the jihadi Jund al-Aqsa group.

    But there are signs of new rifts, including with the powerful Islamic rebel group known as Ahrar al-Sham, which is becoming increasingly distanced from the Nusra Front.

    Capt. Islam Alloush, of another powerful Islamic group known as Army of Islam, which is taking part in the Geneva talks, said meetings are underway to form “an armed umbrella that includes all revolutionary forces in Syria.” He hinted that the Nusra Front is not going to be part of the umbrella.

    Analysts caution not to expect significant side-lining of the Nusra Front.

    “If the cease-fire takes hold and the diplomatic process takes hold, then you might see some shifts,” said Fawaz Gerges, a scholar on Islamic groups who has been following the Syria conflict from the London School of Economics.

    A major factor in favor of the Syrian al-Qaida branch remaining relevant is its track record as an indispensable ally against Syrian government forces. Its allies-of-convenience are not going to give up the group unless they are given assurances Assad's government will not squash them once the Nusra Front is pushed out.

    “To expect a major rupture is wishful thinking,” said Gerges.

    You May Like

    Video For Many US Veterans, the Vietnam War Continues

    More than 40 years after it ended, war in Vietnam and America’s role in it continue to provoke bitter debate, especially among those who fought in it

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    100 immigrants graduated Friday as US citizens in New York, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in cities across country

    Family's Fight Pays Off With Arlington Cemetery Burial Rights for WASPs

    Policy that allowed the Women Airforce Service Pilots veterans to receive burial rites at Arlington had been revoked in 2015

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora