BEIRUT – In a small, rebel-controlled town in Idlib province that saw virulent antigovernment demonstrations in 2011, civilians and activists are once again taking to the streets to protest oppressive rule. This time, however, the slogans and chants are not directed against the government but against an al-Qaida-linked militant group.
Over the past year, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaida-led alliance of insurgent fighters, steadily seized control of large swathes of territory in the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas from rebel factions, making it one of the strongest opposition factions in Syria today. While HTS’s foothold in Idlib is said to be increasing, wide-scale protests against an HTS incursion into Maarat al-Numan over the weekend tell a story of one town’s resistance to the extremist group.
“We will continue to resist [HTS] in the same way that we peacefully resisted the Syrian regime, and endured its crackdown on protests,” Khaled al-Hamid, a 22-year-old protest organizer, told Syria Deeply.
Some 80,000 people live in Maarat al-Numan, including a significant number of displaced Syrians who fled neighboring towns. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) gained full control of Maarat al-Numan in October 2012 after intense battles with the Syrian army. Since then, the town has been a stronghold for Syria’s battered rebel groups, which have become secondary players since the former al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham merged with four smaller rebel factions to form HTS in 2016.
Though the al-Qaida-linked group has some presence in the town, including one local office, the overwhelming majority of residents support the FSA’s Division 13 Brigade, which is made up mostly of Maarat al-Numan natives and is credited with restoring water to the town after wells were destroyed in airstrikes in 2015.
“Maarat al Numan, since the beginning of the revolution, has been at the helm of the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida … there is no way it can be turned into an al-Qaida stronghold,” a top Division 13 commander told Syria Deeply, speaking on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of reprisal.
Last year, residents of Maarat al-Numan protested against the rule of al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate for more than 100 days, in one of the longest protest campaigns since 2011. The recent wave of protests marks the latest installment in the town’s established record of resisting extremist groups.
Demonstrations broke out on Friday after hundreds of militants stormed the Division 13 headquarters and arrested fighters whom the HTS accused of killing members of their alliance. A local security official was also killed by jihadists who had stormed his home.
Enraged by the incursion into the town, residents of Maarat al-Numan flooded the streets, carrying Syrian revolution flags and signs, including one that read: “Your end begins in Maarat al-Naaman. You can not humiliate those who could not be defeated by [President] Bashar [al-Assad.]”
They amassed around the town’s mosque and near the brigade headquarters, where they hurled themselves toward armed Tahrir al-Sham fighters, shouting the same slogans they had used in the past to address thugs sponsored by the Syrian government: “Shabiha, Shabiha” (in reference to plain-clothes security forces hired to attack protesters).
Protesters were met with brutal repression from HTS militants, who opened fire to disperse the crowd, according to activists. A video posted on social media networks by the activist-run Smart News Agency on Friday showed a number of demonstrators inside Maarat al-Numan rapidly dispersing at the sound of heavy gunfire.
Residents of nearby villages and towns seeking to join the protests said they were also shot at on checkpoints erected around the area. Al-Hamid said that he and a number of other activists heading to the protests from a village to the east of Maarat al-Numan were stopped near a checkpoint roughly 1.8 miles (3km) northeast of the town.
“We were roughly 300 meters away from the checkpoint when Tahrir al-Sham fighters opened fire in the air. We did not stop but kept walking until one fighter started firing in our direction,” Al-Hamid said. “The bullets hit the ground in front of us, so we stopped and stepped back a little, shouting slogans against the group.”
A statement released by Ibaa News Agency, HTS’ media wing, claimed that the group’s fighters did not directly target civilians but shot bullets in the air to disperse the crowd. There were no immediate reports of casualties, but for residents, the militant’s reaction to protests was akin to that of the Syrian government years earlier.
“What is happening to us today is a repetition of what happened to us seven years ago. It is the same repression – the same threats and violence. The only difference is in the names; before we used to be beaten by Abu Khodor, now we are being beaten by Abu al-Qa’qa’,” al-Hamid said, in reference to a common nom de guerre among jihadist fighters.
After the first day of protests, HTS signed a cessation of hostilities agreement with the Free Idlib Army (FIA), a coalition of rebel groups with “a consolidated hub of power in southern Idlib.” Division 13 is one of three well-established rebel groups in the FIA.
Under the terms of the deal, a committee of both HTS and FIA members would be formed to investigate claims of the weekend’s attacks in Maarat al-Numan. Division 13 must also cease independent operations in the town and cede control of the majority of its offices in Maarat al-Numan to FIA leadership. It remains unclear whether the proposed “dissolution” of Division 13 is merely superficial.
The outgunned FIA also agreed to hand over all Division 13 fighters wanted by the Tahrir al-Sham group. In return, HTS should withdraw fighters recently deployed to the town and dismantle all of their checkpoints, with the exception of one on the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan.
To prevent further clashes, FSA-linked rebel factions are currently negotiating a reconciliation deal between members of HTS and what was formerly known as the Division 13 brigade, according to the Division 13 commander, who said that his group does not seem to have the upper hand in current talks.
“We are now in a position of weakness because they are in control of a large number of areas around Maarat al-Numan, and we are surrounded from all sides,” the commander said. “These protest movements are our only weapon against al-Qaida.”
While the military confrontation is over for now, protests against al-Qaida continued in Maarat al-Numan over the weekend. Videos released by activist-run media outfits such as the Edlib Media Center and Smart News Agency showed crowds filling up the streets. Photos circulating on social media showed the walls and squares of the town inundated with graffiti, denouncing the extremist group. Activists told Syria Deeply they intend to continue their campaign against HTS.
Al-Hamid and a network of activists from nearby villages are organizing a protest in Maarat al-Numan for Friday. When asked whether he expected the turnout to be low because of Tahrir al-Sham’s oppressive tactics, al-Hamid explained that people are truly fed up with al-Qaida and are unlikely to be deterred.
Abu Baraa, a media activist from Maarat al-Numan, echoed the sentiment, saying that residents of the town are now even more convinced that HTS is nothing more than a “terrorist group.” Although Maarat al-Numan’s residents have harbored this hatred for years, the recent wave of attacks was the tipping point for most people, even former supporters of the extremist group in the town, he explained.
Meanwhile, the Division 13 brigades may be at a military disadvantage, but they continue to command a wide support base in the town, without which al-Qaida has no chance of success.
“Al-Qaida has no future … in Maarat al-Numan,” the Division 13 commander said. “The town will continue to be the biggest nuisance to al-Qaida in all of Idlib province.”