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Rare good news from Syria: some people are rising up against al-Qaeda

Something important is happening in Syria: In a few isolated places, Syrians have begun to rise up against the rule of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in the country. It's not anything like a major shift, but it suggests that some Syrians haven't necessarily bought into Nusra's salafi-jihadist vision for the future of the country.

What's happening

This starts with Syria's recent ceasefire, which over the past two weeks brought relative calm to parts of the country. In some towns, now that the streets are a bit safer, some Syrians have held peaceful protests to renew their calls for Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Nusra opposes Assad as well and is fighting to topple his government. But the group nonetheless wanted to stop the protesters, who were waving flags from the Free Syrian Army (which Nusra opposes as too secular) and calling for democracy.

In the town of Maarat al-Numan, in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, where Nusra controls much of the area, Nusra members tried to shut down the protests, assaulting, detaining, and threatening to shoot the protesting Syrians.

Then, in a somewhat separate incident on March 12, Nusra fighters stormed the headquarters of a rebel group called the 13th Division — a US-backed group that operates under the banner of the Free Syrian Army — in clashes that killed several fighters on both sides. Some members of 13th Division had been "protecting" the earlier protests, which is part of why these clashes fed into the public anger against Nusra.

In response, the people of Maarat al-Numan began protesting again — only this time they're demanding Nusra get out of town. Protesters also reportedly broke into a Nusra compound in town, freeing several people who had been detained by Nusra at the earlier protests and setting fire to the building.

Since then, for several days in a row now in Maarat al-Numan, civilians have protested Nusra, calling on the group to leave Idlib province altogether.

"Extremists of Nusra Front are trying to impose their regulations on the people of Maarat al-Numan and other areas of Idlib, besides excluding moderate rebel groups who are the real representatives of our revolution against Assad dictatorship," Sarhan al-Muhammad, one of the protest's organizers, told ARA News. "People of Idlib will not accept radical ideologies like that of al-Qaeda [or] ISIS."

And it's not just in Maarat al-Numan. Similar anti-Nusra protests have been held, in recent months, in other parts of Syria, for example one in southern Damascus and one in another town in Idlib. While the backstories behind these protests differ, they share an opposition to Nusra's severe rule and a preference for more moderate rebel groups.

A tiny glimmer of good news for Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra has long been one of the most effective fighting forces in the Syrian civil war, but while many Syrians may be content to let Nusra help fight Assad, these protests (and others like them elsewhere in Syria) suggest that they aren't necessarily buying Nusra's salafi-jihadist vision for the future of Syria.

Many analysts see the success and growth of Nusra and other hard-line Islamist groups and the dramatic rise of sectarian hostility in Syria as evidence that the Syrian people have abandoned the aspirations for democracy that sparked the Syrian uprising in the first place. But the fact that, even after five bloody years of war, Syrians are taking to the streets and calling for democracy challenges that.

For a long time now, hopes that Syria could emerge from this conflict as anything like a pluralistic democracy have been pretty dim. There are many reasons for this, but one is that the pro-democracy opposition forces are weak and fractured, whereas the hard-line Islamist groups like Nusra have been much more successful at taking territory from the regime.

It's also because the conflict has aroused such bitter sectarian hatred that the idea of a pluralistic democracy in Syria, in which all sects share power and live side by side in peace, seems next to impossible.

Now that the ceasefire has given Syrians a bit of breathing room and they have a break from the unrelenting onslaught of violence they've faced for five straight years, people are once again taking to the streets to voice their desire for democracy with some of the same fervor (albeit in much smaller numbers) they had back when the Syrian uprising first began in 2011.

That in itself is obviously nowhere near enough to overcome the military superiority of hard-line Islamist groups over pro-democracy groups, nor the damage that has been done to Syrian society during five years of highly sectarian warfare.

But what's happening in Maarat al-Numan is at least a hint of a suggestion that the battlefield success of the jihadist groups and the divisive sectarian atmosphere has not completely smothered the Syrian people's desire for democracy — particularly when their alternative is al-Qaeda-style rule.

The limits of tolerance for Nusra/al-Qaeda in Syria?

It seems that ultra-fundamentalist salafi-jihadist rule, even when it's less extreme than life under ISIS, turns out to be pretty unpopular, at least in Maarat al-Numan.

Nusra has sought to build popular support in the areas under its control by providing social services and carrying out public works projects — just as many other jihadist groups, including ISIS, do.

But unlike ISIS, which compels those under its rule to obey its draconian laws on penalty of extreme violence and gruesome execution, Nusra has generally taken a (relatively) less imperious approach, preferring to proselytize to rather than terrorize, and convince (rather than force) those under its control to embrace "true" Islam.

To be clear, this is a strategic decision on Nusra's part rather than any kind of actual benevolence. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, to whom Nusra pledged allegiance and remains intensely loyal, has long believed that the success of the jihadist project relies on the support of the people in the communities in which al-Qaeda operates. If you treat the people under your control too harshly, you risk losing their support — and thus losing everything when they turn against you and kick you out.

Zawahiri himself learned this lesson back in Egypt in the 1990s, when the jihadist group he ran before al-Qaeda lost the support of the Egyptian people and ended up being run out of the country.

This lesson was further reinforced by the experience of al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, when that group's indiscriminate violence killed many Iraqi Sunnis and eventually led to a backlash from the Sunni tribes that contributed to the group's defeats. The al-Qaeda leadership saw this as not just a failure in Iraq but a setback for the group's image globally.

Nusra appeared to have learned this lesson well: It works with other Syrian rebel groups to fight the Assad regime and, by the low standards of the Syrian civil war at least, is relatively restrained in attacks on civilians.

But Nusra's recent attacks on civilian demonstrators and moderate opposition groups hints at a possibility that this may be changing somewhat (though it could also be just an anomaly), or at least that these sorts of demonstrations are beyond what the group will tolerate.

To the Syrians in Idlib who've been on the receiving end of Nusra's violence, however, it may not make a difference. Those who are protesting seem to want Nusra out.

For now, these uprisings against Nusra seem to be limited to a few small areas and not widespread, and even in those areas their effect may be limited. But the more people in Syria treat Nusra as oppressive and unwelcome, the less credible they, and the al-Qaeda-style salafi-jihadist ideology they represent, begin to look.

It's not exactly an end to Syria's suffering. But it's something.