Ana Maria Luca

The Syrian Sunni resistance

The Nusra Front is trying to distinguish itself from ISIS in a bid to win the hearts and minds of Syrian Sunnis

The Lebanese town of Arsal, on the Syrian border, has known the not-so-nice side of the Nusra Front. (NOW)

Before the Lebanese Armed Forces besieged the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal; before scores of soldiers were taken hostage and the their relatives blocked roads to protest the government’s inability to get tem released; before a Qatari envoy went back and forth between Arsal and Beirut to no avail, it wasn’t very clear what kind of jihadists ruled over the hills and farmlands at the Lebanese-Syrian border.


Were they Jabhat al-Nusra rebels? Had they defected to the Islamic State (ISIS; IS) so as to appear more fearsome? Nobody knew precisely. But for months, masked gunmen had been raiding refugee camps and private homes, kidnapping, torturing and sometimes killing young men.


When the Lebanese Army went into Arsal in early August, battled jihadists, made two different ceasefire agreements — one with Nusra and the other with ISIS — and started negotiating for the release of two dozen kidnapped soldiers and policemen, it became clear which faction had the upper hand: the Nusra Front was doing the talking and calling the shots. Its representatives asked the Lebanese government to release jihadist inmates in return for captive soldiersFor each hostage soldier, the government would secure the release of 10 detainees from a Lebanese prison; or seven detainees in Lebanon and 30 female detainees from Syrian jails; or five detainees in Lebanon and 50 female detainees held in Syria.


According to Carnegie Middle East analyst Mario Abou Zeid, with ISIS holding northeastern Syria and other factions controlling the north, along with coalition airstrikes, Nusra’s fighters had been pushed towards the Qalamoun Mountains. But 10 days ago, Nusra’s fighters had a breakthrough against Syrian rebels in Idlib Province, taking over the suburbs Jabal al-Zawiya and Jisr al-Shugur.


The popular jihadists


Like ISIS, the Nusra Front wants to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Syria after the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Unlike ISIS, however, Nusra has garnered a lot of popularity among Syrian Sunnis who see the group as their best chance at overthrowing Assad. According to both political analysts and Syrian opposition members, the leaders of the Nusra Front have been trying to distinguish themselves from ISIS, displaying a much less aggressive behavior towards local communities. Moreover, while ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fighters were crucifying and executing people in Raqqa and other cities, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s men were building an image as the emerging Syrian Sunni resistance by battling Assad loyalist forces and Hezbollah.


For many opposition activists, while the Nusra Front is not the perfect solution, it’s better than the Islamic State.


“Because the conflict in Syria took a long time, longer than expected, many people are ready to support any organization they feel can fight the Syrian regime and end the crisis,” Bassel Haffar, of the Muslim Brotherhood, explained. “This is the main reason people are supporting the Nusra Front. Especially that it is not an extremist organization like the IS. People are tired, so they are supporting the Nusra Front, even though they know it is not totally right to do so, but it is better than chaos.” Haffar says Nusra “is not acting like the IS. They are cooperating with other armed groups in order to fight the regime. Their intervention in people’s daily life is very limited; unlike the IS, they didn’t try to force their practices on people.”


Nabil Halabi, founder of the Lebanese Committee for the Support of the Syrian Revolution, says that the Nusra Front gives “a certain freedom to people and is only stopping crimes they consider against the Sharia, like robberies.” 


Abou Zeid says ISIS doesn’t discriminate when imposing its rules on communities under its control. “The Islamic State also executed Sunnis. This has been used by the Nusra Front to reshape its image as the Sunni movement, trying to protect the interests of the Sunni community and generate support in the communities where they’re deployed.”


A new strategy?


Besides its hearts and minds strategy, Nusra’s leaders also seem to have learned a lot from ISIS’s strategy of exploiting resources in territory it has taken. Abou Zeid says that the recent territorial gains by Nusra in Idlib indicate that Al-Jolani might have changed his approach to warfare.


“Initially, the Nusra Front had no interest in controlling ground or having a territory under its governance, whereas the IS had a clear strategy of controlling territory and implementing structures similar to a state’s structures. After the coalition's airstrike campaign against the IS, the Nusra Front understood the importance of controlling ground and communities for the support of the operations of the group.” Abou Zeid says the most important tactic that Nusra leaders have gleaned is ISIS’s ability to melt into communities and thus avoid casualties, while Nusra has maintained visible headquarters and bases.


But even with a new war strategy, the Nusra Front’s chances to actually rival ISIS are very slim. “Nusra aims to apply Sharia in Syria,” says Halabi, "but unlike the IS, Nusra never said they wanted to control territories. It might be Jolani’s immediate strategy to do so, [but it is] not a long-term plan. Baghdadi had a long-term plan, whereas Jolani is only fighting the regime, at least for now.” In Halabi’s opinion, the Nusra Front does not have a political plan to be able to govern the territories it has taken. “Nusra is now a fighting force — they need to also have political skills. Now, they do not have these skills and don’t have the human resources to establish a government.”


Fighting the regime in Syria also means fighting Hezbollah, which itself is fighting alongside Assad loyalist forces in the Lebanese border region. Last week, Al-Jolani threatened the Lebanese faction: “Our brothers in the Qalamoun region have many surprises... The real battle in Lebanon has yet to begin,” he said. “Hezbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, will regret in the coming days that he harmed the Sunnis in Syria.”


How nice are the “nice jihadists”?


The Lebanese government is still negotiating with the Nusra Front for the policemen and soldiers kidnapped in the Arsal region. Prime Minister Tammam Salam claimed some progress in the negotiations, but did not go into details.


The jihadists in Arsal have not kidnapped any additional military personnel, but rumors abound of civilians being kidnapped, tortured and sometimes killed. In October, gunmen kidnapped Maher al-Amatouri, from Barouk, while he was in Arsal, and several members of the Al-Hujeiri family have been abducted in recent months. In June, a group of gunmen, allegedly from the Nusra Front, abducted three teenagers from Arsal and tortured them for several hours, supposedly for stealing a motorbike. In early May, gunmen (also allegedly Nusra) kidnapped four Syrians from a refugee camp in Arsal. It’s not clear whether the men were ultimately released. Later, a group of armed men killed Moustafa Ezzedine in front of his house.


Local authorities deny that there are gunmen roaming the town. “I don’t know if there are ISIS fighters in Arsal,” municipality Vice President Ahmad Fleeti told NOW. “There are a lot of young male Syrians at an age that allows them to carry weapons, but we do not know if they are related to any terrorist organization and we are not actively helping any of them,” he added.  


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting and translation.


Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609

The Lebanese town of Arsal, on the Syrian border, has known the not-so-nice side of the Nusra Front. (NOW)

Like ISIS, the Nusra Front wants to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Syria after the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Unlike ISIS, however, Nusra has garnered a lot of popularity among Syrian Sunnis who see the group as their best chance at overthrowing Assad."

  • mjay

    Nusra is only popular in the imagination of demented old bats like you

    November 13, 2014