Nusra deflects blame for protest suppression; ‘mandate flag…sows division’

AMMAN: One day after masked men allegedly affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa dispersed a non-violent protest in Idlib city, citizen journalists in the eponymous northwestern province released a statement on Tuesday condemning the “demeaning” treatment of protestors.

“Today those whose lenses the regime has failed to shutter—are being arrested and mistreated by those we thought were one with us and were here to defend us,” said the statement.

The men reportedly responsible for breaking up the protest, smashing participants’ cameras and arresting 10 people were members of the Security Committee, made up of fighters from the Victory Army, Idlib province’s ruling rebel coalition, protester Abu Bara told Syria Direct on Monday.

The protesters say they were demanding “freedom, the fall of the Assad regime and the unification of opposition factions,” said Abu Bara.

The sign reads "don't let the door hit you on the way out" at Monday's protest before the crackdown. Photo courtesy of Al-Marra Today

“When we started the protest, there were a number of masked men from the Victory Army’s Security Committee watching us,” said Abu Bara, adding that he confirmed the men’s affiliation based on their vehicles.

Demonstrators say they were told not to march while holding up the “mandate flag.”

“We’ll fire on you if anyone raises the mandate flag,” said one of the masked men according to Abu Bara.

The so-called “mandate flag” was used by the Syrian Republic during the period of the French mandate from 1932–1946, the latter being the year of Syria’s independence. The flag remained Syria’s national symbol until Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. Since 2011, the flag has served as a symbol of the revolution against the government of Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, but is seen as a remnant of foreign influence by some Islamist groups.

There were two kinds of flags carried at the protest, said a second protester who requested anonymity. “The first, and the most widespread, was a white flag with the words ‘No God but God, Mohamed is the Prophet of God,’” and the second was the mandate flag.

When some protesters insisted on raising the disputed flag anyway, masked men began beating people and confiscating cameras, said the same protester.

“They pulled one young guy into a café across from the clock tower square and started beating him until other protesters were able to pull him out,” he said.

The masked men arrested 10 protesters and smashed five cameras and three camera phones throughout the dispersal, three protesters told Syria Direct.

Once the mandate flags were gathered up and confiscated the men replaced them with black Jabhat al-Nusra flags, said the eyewitnesses.

Despite the security personnel driving Victory Army vehicles, the men who dispersed the protest were acting specifically on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa, an official with Ahrar a-Sham, one of the largest fighting groups within the rebel coalition, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“What happened Monday was not the result of a decision by the Security Committee to break up the protest,” said the Ahrar official, requesting anonymity. The crackdown was the result of “the actions of individual elements within Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa,” he said, adding that “the other groups in the Victory Army bear no responsibility.”

“Ahrar a-Sham completely denounces this behavior and calls on all factions involved to punish those fighters who participated [in the demonstration’s suppression] and hold them accountable" said Ahrar a-Sham in an official statement released Monday.

Jabhat al-Nusra has not commented publicly but a member of the group in Idlib province, who requested anonymity, spoke with Syria Direct by social media on Tuesday.

The Nusra member first denied that the protest had been dispersed at all, but then said that those who confiscated the flags and beat participants were other protesters “upset by the mandate flag.”

Despite denying that Nusra had been involved in the incident, the fighter said that his group supported the removal of “fabricated flags” meant to “sow division.”

“Only one person was arrested” he added, “the reason was that he was photographing women.”

One of the protesters who spoke with Syria Direct Tuesday listed the names of four friends and colleagues arrested at the protest who are still being held in Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa prisons.

A popular Saudi preacher and Victory Army jurist, Abdullah al-Muheisani, told Ara News on Tuesday that the decision to disperse the protest was an “unfortunate mistake.”

While the mandate flag does not represent “proper Islamic procedure” it should be permitted at anti-Assad protests, the judge said.

But in this case, it wasn’t. And at least some of the protesters say the Victory Army is ultimately responsible for the behavior of its fighters, rogue or not.

“The Victory Army must put an end to these infringements on people’s freedom,” said Abu Bara.

“Otherwise Idlib will be ruled by gangs like Nusra and Aqsa.”

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Abdullah al-Hariri

Abdullah studied journalism in Damascus, but could not complete his degree because of the security situation. He moved to Jordan in 2014 and attended classes provided by the DAVES Peace Project. He also has trained at Radio Balad and written for Orient News.

Shereen a-Nasser

Shereen was born and raised in Homs. She holds a degree in French Literature from Baath University. She worked as a French teacher after graduation and did volunteer work for the Jesuit priests in Homs. After the uprising began, she moved to Jordan with her family. She hopes to use her journalism skills to benefit the Syrian people.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.