How did the Syrian uprising become dominated by jihadists?

What went wrong with the Syrian spring? Loubna Mrie, an activist from Latakia now in exile in New York, explains how a secular revolution was hijacked from within

Syrian anti-government protesters in May 2011 carry a banner that reads in Arabic: ”Our blood is not more precious than the blood of our brothers, the youth of Homs” during a rally in the central city of Homs. AP Photo
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The fall of Aleppo marks the beginning of the end of a revolution that began with peaceful slogans and citizen marches.

In a few weeks, the Syrian war will have lasted for six years. In that time, the revolution has spiralled into a civil war fought by local proxies of regional powers and characterised by virulent sectarianism.

In this cauldron of violence, the most extreme factions have come to the fore. While ISIL controls more than a third of Syria, it is Al Qaeda and its affiliates which has come to dominate rebel-held areas. How did that happen? How did Syria, one of the most secular countries in the Arab world, become “jihad central”?

For those who are not familiar with the early years of the Syrian uprising, rebel-held areas were a safe haven for many activists who fled the government areas.

Syrian civil society members and activists from a plethora of political, religious and class backgrounds were also welcome, in addition to foreign journalists who evaded the government and crossed into Syria between 2011 and 2013.

Yet today, those rebel-held areas are the most dangerous places for journalists and those who have decided to continue covering the Syrian war. Those who stay fear being bombed by the Assad regime. But they fear being kidnapped even more. How did we reach this point?

Government repression was a key factor in the rise of Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s main Syrian affiliate, now known as Jabhat Fateh Al Sham. President Bashar Al Assad never shied away from threatening Armageddon against those who opposed his rule. One slogan used by his supporters was – and remains – “Assad or we burn the country”.

This has largely materialised. Villages and cities that protested against the government were attacked and often experienced massacres. Al Houla in Homs provides a cogent example of this. In May 2012, almost 50 families were slaughtered.

Another example, the village of Binish in Idlib, witnessed repression as well. In 2011 many residents protested against the government. The government responded by not only raiding the village and shooting demonstrators, but also rounding up anyone whose ID card listed Binish as their hometown regardless if they were involved in protests or not.

People with Binish on their IDs – no matter their political affiliations – were automatically detained and jailed by the government. By mid-2012, Binish was one of the first towns to welcome Jabhat Al Nusra. It is no coincidence that a widely circulated video with civilians cheering foreign fighters singing in praise of Al Qaeda and its founder Osama bin Laden originated in Binish.

Massacres and government brutality led to many civilians embracing radical groups and their extremist message that the conflict was an existential one that required drastic measures such as ethnic cleansing and reciprocal butchery.

The media doesn’t remember Syria’s non-violent demonstrations or political actions like street theatre that were organised by college students to advocate for democracy and freedom.

For us, who were there at the beginning, protesting even while government soldiers shot people around us, we know what happened, we remember, and we understand the timeline. But to the rest of the world, Binish is just another infamous rebel-held area.

In the beginning, it wasn’t like that. Only after the Assad regime showed its brutality, and the world watched and waited, did people in these villages seek help from the only people who could protect them.

While civilians gravitated to Jabhat Al Nusra, moderate rebel groups increasingly relied on its prowess on the battlefield. Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions eschewed conducting suicide bombings, but they immediately realised the efficacy and potential of hardened fighters such as Jabhat Al Nusra. For example, rebels could not have captured the Minagh airbase in rural Aleppo without the waves of Nusra suicide bombers who wore down government forces.

As the government unleashed all the firepower in its arsenal ranging from fighter jets to chemical weapons, FSA groups realised they needed to level the playing field and were willing to overlook Jabhat Al Nusra’s Al Qaeda links. As a result, FSA brigades slowly allowed the jihadists to take control of the conflict to suit its own ends.

At the same time, FSA rotten apples eroded public support. In 2013, truckers around the town of Harem near the Turkish border were forced to pay tolls of about 5,000 Syrian pounds ($100 or Dh367), ostensibly for security operations but in reality to line the pockets of corrupt commanders.

As the conflict progressed, Jabhat Al Nusra was able to turn the public against activists and FSA leaders who had initially been viewed as heroes in 2011-2.

In 2014, Raed Al Fares, a famous civil society activist, survived an assassination attempt near his house in Kafr Nabl. While Jabhat Al Nusra did not claim responsibility for the attack, its supporters did not hide their frustration on social media for its failure.

What was notable though was that there was no public defence of Al Fares. A society which once viewed him as a champion of its cause and an icon in the peaceful struggle against tyranny remained silent.

In the aftermath of the incident, I spoke with many residents of Kafr Nabl. They viewed Jabhat Al Nusra as an effective fighting force, whereas Al Fares’s slogans and protests offered neither material gains nor protection from Assad’s bombs. If they had to choose between the two, they would choose those who offered protection.

Respected FSA groups and leaders also felt Jabhat Al Nusra’s wrath. In 2014, the jihadists seized American supplied arms from the Hazm Movement and forced the group’s leaders to flee to Turkey. The Hazm Movement played a crucial role in the capture of large parts of the province of Idlib, but as it collapsed under Jabhat Al Nusra’s guns, civilians remained indifferent.

The truth is that jihadi groups had a head-start in organisational skills. They had experience in spreading propaganda and creating a support-base for themselves. They were also extremely efficient when it came to the allocation of resources. They were rarely short of money in a conflict where money mattered – and because of that, they had an advantage. The FSA, on the other hand, was consistently cash-strapped and had to spend much of its time and resources seeking funds. All this weighed heavily on its ability to form the grassroots movement needed to support them.

Jihadist groups, regardless of their different affiliations, were very good at collaborating, setting aside their differences and working together, while the FSA quickly became a proxy army for different nations and that impaired its ability to function as one. People noticed that and this cost them much support as it made the jihadi groups appear more powerful and more capable of getting the job done.

From the outside, the story of the revolution can appear to be a story of politics. But it is really a story of people: of people thrust into a dangerous and deadly situation, and turned to whoever could best protect them and their families.

Though the sun is setting on the Syrian revolution, the jihadists it has spawned will find new countries to destabilise. Understanding the factors that fostered their rise might mean being able to prevent that from materialising again.

In Aleppo, green buses carried out the last remaining protesters of the Syrian uprising, who dared to demand democracy, equality, and a better life. In the coming weeks and months, more will board those buses. Syria’s revolution will now only be remembered as a civil war, and those who died believing that their friends would carry it on, will be reduced to no more than numbers in history books. Faced with men with guns, the protesters lost.

Loubna Mrie is a Syrian activist who participated in the revolution and has covered Syria as a photojournalist for Reuters. She is now studying at New York University