November 6, 2014

After Jabhat a-Nusra routed the US-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) over the weekend, capturing their headquarters of Jabal a-Zawiya in southern Idlib province, SRF leader Jamal Maruf vowed that he would return and “liberate Jabal a-Zawiya [from Nusra forces] village by village.”

But what do the people of Jabal a-Zawiya want?

Citizen journalist Ala a-Din al-Khatib, who lives in Jabal a-Zawiya, says “the street in general” prefers Nusra rule to that of the SRF.

“We hated what is called the SRF and Harakat Hazm,” al-Khatib tells Syria Direct’s Moutasem Jamal, “because they were accustomed to stealing and looting.”

Maruf's SRF, a moderate coalition made up of 14 brigades, was formed in December 2013 in response to the creation of the more radical Islamic Front. Harakat Hazm, a second group driven from Jabal a-Zawiya by Nusra over the weekend, is another coalition of moderate rebels formed in January 2013.

Both groups consider themselves part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

While “some” honorable men were part of the FSA factions, “the sheer number of thieves in their ranks blackened their reputation,” al-Khatib says.

A-Din is not partial to any group, saying that Nusra is busy with other battles and once they begin to consolidate their rule, they will “impose [their] religious rulings, taxes and laws on civilians.”

But, he says, the al-Qaida affiliate uses “good manners and propriety” in their interactions, which goes a long way to winning hearts and minds on the ground.

Q: How do people in the area view the SRF and Harakat Hazm?

We hated what is called the SRF and Harakat Hazm because they were accustomed to stealing and looting.

At the same time, we don't deny that some honorable men were present among them, but the sheer number of thieves in their ranks blackened their reputation.

JabhatNusraDeirSunbul "Deir Sunbul [Jamal Maruf's hometown] welcomes you, Nusra." Photo courtesy of @almo3taz85.

Q: Did the SRF and Harakat Hazm provide any security to civilians or their possessions?

No, they didn't provide us any security—on the contrary, there was a total lack of security.

[A thief] would open the door to your house and steal [your possessions], and kidnapping and ransom operations occurred without the rebels taking any responsibility for what happened, as if they weren't responsible for the area that they were, in fact, supposed to protect.

Q: How were services in the area when the SRF was in control, in terms of security, food, water, electricity, and medicine?

The SRF did not provide anything that you mentioned [above] to civilians. They only provided support to their soldiers, they weren't interested in anyone else.

Q: After Jabhat a-Nusra took control over the southern countryside [of Idlib] and the SRF and Harakat Hazm retreated, how did Nusra treat civilians, and what happened with services in the area?

We have found Nusra's treatment much better compared to the FSA's, especially around the military checkpoints—Nusra treats us with good manners and propriety.

People think that Nusra, or any similar Islamist brigade's rule over the liberated areas [i.e., areas not under regime control] is better than that of the SRF. This is the opinion of the street in general.

As for services, Nusra promised to meet all of our needs. But they have not begun yet because the situation is still tense.

Q: Has Nusra imposed any new laws in Jabal a-Zawiya, on men, or women?

No, they did not impose any new laws on the men, nor on the women as some are saying—that they imposed the hijab, or the khimar [more expansive than the hijiab] on all the women. No, nothing like that has happened until now.

Q: What are your expectations for the future if Nusra continues to control Jabal a-Zawiya? Will the area become better if Nusra stays in control?

No. Nusra is busy today with battles with other organizations. When these [battles] end, Nusra will become more at ease, and at that time, it will act as the Islamic State acts, in terms of imposing [religious] rulings, taxes, and laws on civilians.

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