ISTANBUL — Syria’s al-Qaeda branch is seeking to emulate its jihadi rival, ISIS, by establishing its own government in areas it controls.
Over the past year, the Nusra Front, a powerful and well-organized Syrian rebel army that is the country’s official arm of al-Qaeda, has shifted tactics from being a solely military force to one seeking to tighten its hold over areas under its control by seizing the reins of governance, including law enforcement and municipal affairs, in what its supporters have hinted could become its own emirate in the northwestern Idlib province.
“They switched from just being a military power to taking over services,” said Abu Yahya, nom de guerre of a Syrian activist in the city of Muraat al-Noman, in Idlib province. “Nusra is trying to build institutions and trying to oversee services. They have now developed a love for power.”
The group’s efforts are concentrated on the city of Idlib, which the regime surrendered last year as a coalition of Islamist rebel groups that included Nusra pushed its way into the city. Over the following months, Nusra began to muscle out other rebel groups when it came to running the city. It did the same in other parts of Idlib province, where it has sought to create an institution called the The Liberated Districts Administration (Idaret al Manateq al Muharrarra), in an area that includes the cities of Idlib, Reeha and Jusr al-Shughoor, which would give them direct control of taxation, sanitation, electricity, water and as well as municipal governance.
ISIS, which began as an offshoot of Nusra before turning against it in 2013, distinguished itself from other rebel groups by creating government institutions in areas under its control. Unlike other jihadi groups that relied on donations from abroad, ISIS partly funded itself by taking on the functions of the state. Those living in ISIS-held territory pay taxes, tolls and fees to the jihadi group, allowing it to pay salaries and fund its war. Now Nusra, which has fought against ISIS in the past, wants to follow the same model to build its own emirate in northwest Syria.
“It’s feeling a sense of competition from ISIS, and wants to show it’s capable of playing a governance role and not just a military one,” said Lina Khatib, a Middle East expert at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.
But the jihadi group’s ambitions have been partly thwarted by civil society activists who were at the vanguard of the 2011 uprising against the rule of Bashar al-Assad and are now resisting its plans, say local activists and scholars tracking the conflict.
“Because the violence has gone down, civil society activists have retaken to the streets, and they tend to embrace the uprising’s pluralistic goals in a way that Nusra finds threatening and directly contradicts their ideology,” said Noah Bonsey, a Syria researcher at the International Crisis Group.
A cessation of hostilities deal agreed to last month has slowed Russian airstrikes and Syrian barrel bombs. Syrian activists like Abu Yahya have emerged from the rubble, taking to the streets, speaking out publicly and making known their efforts to govern themselves via the local councils established years ago, and publicizing their work through social media, as they did initial months of the uprising. They are now are seeking to present to the world a different picture of the political landscape in rebel areas.
“People have taken a deep breath and are able to go back to organizing the protests,” said Kenan Rahmani, a 28-year-old Syrian American law student at the American University in Washington D.C., who spent 10 days in Syria’s Aleppo and Idlib provinces this month.
“The ceasefire demonstrates the revolution never really stopped,” he said in a telephone interview from the U.S. “Now that the airstrikes have stopped, the revolution has reverted to the default state, which is to protest and revolt against the Assad regime, the primary instigator of atrocities in Syria.”
But on the ground in Idlib, it is Nusra and not the regime that poses the greatest challenge to the renascent protest movement. The group long ago began to set up Islamic courts to punish its own dissenters or enemies caught on the battlefield. It has also established security checkpoints in areas under its control . Nusra for years took a cautious approach toward seizing full control of areas where it held sway, opting to build relations with locals and burnishing its popularity with its battlefield successes. Perhaps watching the regime, ISIS, and Kurds seeking to lock in their gains, last year, for the first time, the group started targeting government institutions to bring them under its control.
But Nusra encountered resistance each step of the way, and so far has been unable to fully emulate ISIS’s model of a self-sustaining emirate. Abu Yahya said that Nusra quickly alienated many locals under its rule because of its incompetence. “Their services were bad,” he said. “They took large amounts of taxes and didn’t offer a lot. They started making a lot of bad decision in their rule. They tried to be good rulers but they really failed, that’s why the people are alienated from them.”
Khatib suggested the demographic makeup of Syria’s northwest made it more difficult for Nusra to establish its own emirate. “Idlib and other areas in Western Syria are highly urbanized with a higher number of educated middle-class Syrians,” she said. “In the eastern areas the residents are more tribal and socially conservative. This underlines the importance of civil society in the conflict.”
Over the last month, Nusra burned the popular flag of the Syrian opposition and arrested those protesting its rule in Idlib. In Murat al-Noman, Nusra recently attacked the 13th Brigade, a relatively moderate unit of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, hoping to chase it from the city and seize its weapons. In response, locals took to the streets and demonstrated in support of the rebel group for nearly two weeks.
“This is not something Nusra likes,” Abu Yahya said. “They want a state where no one intervenes, where no one says, ‘no,’ or ‘what are you doing?’ This is something we don’t accept, something the people won’t accept.
During recent protests in Murat al-Numan, Nusra militants reportedly arrested some activists and warned them that it would not tolerate street demonstrations under the banner of the Syrian revolutionary flag. But the protesters and public pressure overwhelmed members of the group, and they eventually relented.
“The perception is that Nusra has very tight control over the people and the area,” said Rahmani. [But] Nusra doesn’t have the tight control of ISIS or the regime.”