Charles Lister writes: Ten days ago, under the relative calm of Syria’s cessation of hostilities, hundreds of civilians gathered in the Idlib town of Maarat al-Numan to celebrate the continuation of their populist revolution. For the first time in many months, the world heard Syrian people peacefully protesting in favor of change: “the people are one, and united, the revolution continues!” they chanted, while waving the three star revolutionary flag made popular by the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA). Similar demonstrations took place in over 100 other towns across the country that day, in a stark reminder to the world that five years of being brutally suppressed by their own government had not defeated their zeal for a just and socially representative future for Syria.
In addition to this heartening protest rebirth, Syria’s two-week cessation of hostilities — or more accurately, its dramatic reduction of hostilities — revealed something else significant. While al-Qaeda may have successfully exploited the Syrian crisis in order to establish a concrete foothold in the heart of the Levant, its affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra lay particularly vulnerable when faced with constrained levels of violence. Although militarily preeminent amid total war with the Assad regime and Russia’s devastating and indiscriminate air bombardment, relative peace saw Jabhat al-Nusra become virtually impotent overnight.
The widespread re-emergence of the revolutionary flag in towns like Maarat al-Numan, where major FSA leaders like Ahmed Saoud and Fares al-Bayoush appeared alongside famed activist Hadi al-Abdullah to lead protests on Friday, March 4, represented a serious challenge to al-Qaeda’s perception of control. Weeks earlier, Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda front group Jund al-Aqsa had issued an Idlib-wide ban on the flying of anything except white and black flags of Islamic character. [Continue reading…]