Southern Damascus residents are staging daily protests against Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-affiliated militant group, after the group’s supporters allegedly attacked a Free Syrian Army checkpoint, say residents and officials. The protests, one of which turned deadly, may signal growing civilian unease with attempts by Jabhat al-Nusra to exert control over the rebel-controlled area.
Reports have emerged that hundreds of people in the capital’s Beit Sahem area have been holding daily three-hour sit-ins since late December to protest against Jabhat al-Nusra’s actions. The group aims to overthrow the Assad government and replace it with a Sunni Islamic state.
Walid al-Agha, a member of the anti-government Revolution Spring Collective in South Damascus, said armed Jabhat al-Nusra supporters attacked a Free Syrian Army checkpoint in Beit Sahem in the early hours of the morning on December 27. Agha said the assailants approached the station, manned by three guards assigned by local militias and the local committee, at about 4 a.m. to steal light weapons. A guard wrestled one of the attackers to the ground and removed his mask at gunpoint before they fled the scene, he said.
The guard identified the attacker as Abu Ramez, the leader of a local pro-Nusra Front group, although the claim could not be independently verified. Several sources confirmed that hundreds of local residents marched past the house of a Nusra Front leader identified only as “Boro” to protest against the incident the next day. The leader was allegedly assaulted before he retrieved an AK-47 from his home and fired it at the crowd, fatally wounding a man identified by sources as Abu Bilal and injuring another.
In an interview with Syria Deeply, Agha said residents had grown tired of Nusra Front members trying to exert control over various neighborhoods in Southern Damascus. He said most residents preferred the leadership of the local elected committee, which among other things has created a court to resolve disputes. All the factions operating in Southern Damascus have reportedly backed the committee and the court, with the exception of the Nusra Front and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).
Agha told Syria Deeply about the events as he’s seen them unfold.
Syria Deeply: Have there been previous confrontations in south Damascus with the Nusra Front?
Agha: Yes. Not too long ago, the Front executed two young men from the Yarmouk Camp because they allegedly blasphemed. It became apparent that one of the men was an army deserter. A woman was also killed by mistake at the hands of a Nusra Front member.
Syria Deeply: Who helped the Nusra Front and ISIS to enter south Damascus to begin with?
Agha: Most Nusra members are originally from the south. Few aren’t natives. I don’t have statistics to prove it, but I can say with certainty that there are only a few fighters who aren’t from around here. Still they try to expand their power and influence in any way possible.
Syria Deeply: Do they enforce their beliefs and ideology as they do in northern Syria?
Agha:: Most of the time, yes. ISIS is stationed in the Hajjar al-Aswad area only in south Damascus. The Nusra Front can be found in the Yarmouk Camp and other areas such as Beit Sahem. In truth, there hasn’t been a real confrontation between the camp residents and the Nusra Front members there. It’s been worse in other areas, but the residents of Beit Sahem insist that the Nusra Front leaves their town and that whoever is responsible for the death of one of the residents is held accountable.
Syria Deeply also spoke with a local activist in Southern Damascus, Abu al-Bara’, a former medical student who currently practices medicine with the opposition, about the protests against the Nusra Front.
Syria Deeply: In case the Nusra Front doesn’t meet your demands, what will you do?
Al-Bara’: So far, there aren’t any plans for if our demands to have the Front leave the area aren’t met. I can say that it’s similar to the situation at the beginning of the revolution when peaceful demands were made. We will continue to peacefully [protest] because any armed confrontation will have dire consequences, mainly because many of the Nusra Front members are from Beit Sahem. A delegation made up of residents met with some of the area’s military leaders so they would be mediators and send a message to the Nusra Front. I expect there to be another meeting with the leaders of the Nusra Front soon.
Syria Deeply: When did the protests start and how long will they continue for? What areas are participating? How many protesters are there?
Al-Bara’: The sit-in protests started on December 29. They will continue every day for three hours. The daily average of demonstrators is between 300 and 400 people. On January 2, we had the largest turn-out with 2,000 protesters. The demonstrations will continue to take place until we reach a unified, just vision that ensures equality between all, or until we reach a solution that ensures justice and ends injustice. The protesters were from several towns, such as Beit Sahem, Yalda and Bebila. The protests always kick off after the noon prayer. We sing some pro-revolution songs and some moderate religious chants that condemn injustice and killing. We also chant against the regime and we demand that it be kicked out of the town. We then distribute food to the protesters from charity kitchens. Our most common slogans are: “Leave the people. Take your emirate and leave” and “Nusra Front, you claim to have come to stand by the people of Sham. But you kill, steal and assault [us]. Why?”
Syria Deeply: You said that you protested against the Nusra Front and the regime at the same time. Do you believe this is useful four years into the Syrian revolution and after it has become an armed struggle? What’s the point of these protests now?
Al-Bara’: Yes. We protested against the Nusra Front because of its repeated transgressions and its attempts to control the area, as well as because it welcomed fighters into its fold known for being violent and who mistreated us. The town of Beit Sahem agreed to a truce with the regime at the beginning of 2014 after being under a very tight siege for some time. In a way, the town is still under siege. It’s true that there is a way in for goods after the truce was signed, but people still find the prices to be exorbitant. Many live off the vegetables and grains they grow, as well as off the charity kitchens. Gas and [wood] for keeping warm are unavailable. On the other hand, many of the pro-Nusra militants now accuse us of being with the regime and say we are facilitating the advances of the regime into the southern area that overlooks Damascus airport. That’s why we protest against both parties, but we will stick to the peaceful struggle to avoid any unwanted confrontation. We will keep demonstrating until the Nusra Front meets our demands. If it doesn’t, I think it will stay put in spite of what the people want, but it will have lost its popular base. Even the 10 percent of residents who are pro-Nusra have admitted they were wrong.
Syria Deeply: Is the Nusra Front trying to force its beliefs on people? Are there violent transgressions against the people either relating to religion or the community? Does the Front monopolize goods or trading?
Al-Bara’: Yes. Hundreds of armed Nusra Front members entered Beit Sahem in November 2014 under the pretext of wanting to arrest a person accused of blasphemy. It has issued a statement saying it would execute anyone who blasphemes. While we agree that whoever blasphemes should be held accountable, the person should be turned to the legitimate committee in South Damascus that is supported by all military factions in the area with the exception of the Front and ISIS. The committee said that the punishment for blasphemy is a year in prison after repenting, not execution. That’s how I’m sure the Nusra Front is trying to force its false and repulsive beliefs.
Syria Deeply: Who are the military factions that are fighting in south Damascus?
Al-Bara’: There are fighters from all military factions – Jaysh al-Islam, Jaysh al-Ababil, Martyrs of the Prophet Brigade – as well as the Nusra Front and ISIS, whom we are demonstrating against. South Damascus is on the verge of being under siege with the deteriorating living conditions after the regime closed the Bebila crossing, which is the only way for food to get into town.