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Month of protests force concessions from Nusra in north Syria

Nusra on Monday released captured Free Syrian Army prisoners following local pressure
Fighters from al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front drive in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo flying Islamist flags as they head to a frontline (AFP)

A month-long protest against the Nusra Front in the northern Syrian city of Maarat al-Numan has won concessions from the militant group as locals continue to push for the return of the Free Syrian Army. 

According to analysts on Twitter, the al-Qaeda affiliate has now released a number of prisoners belonging to the FSA Division 13 brigade, following pressure from locals.

Tensions between the various rebel groups have been highlighted by a UN-brokered ceasefire that does not include Nusra or the Islamic State (IS) group.

Since the shaky ceasefire began in late March, anti-government protestors have broken out across Syria, but smaller pockets of anti-Nusra resistance have also sprung up largely in the north where the militants were once largely tolerated by opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

In a statement on Twitter, one Division 13 commander warned that “takfiris” - a term referring to Muslims who deem other Muslims to be non-Muslims, often derogatorily applied to Nusra and Islamic State - would find themselves “isolated” by the opposition following incidents like this. 

The town is located in Idlib province which has long seen as a Nusra stronghold and is some 80 kilometres south from the city of Aleppo where Nusra has a strong presence. 

مظاهرة شعببة طالبت بخروج جبهة النصرة من المدينة ورددت#يالله_ارحل_جولاني#انتهاكات_جبهة_النصرة

— انتهاكات جبهة النصرة (@JAN_Violations) April 5, 2016

Protests against Nusra began last month after Nusra fighters, along with their allies from the Jund al-Aqsa group, reportedly attacked the headquarters of Division 13, arresting a number of its fighters and taking weapons.

The move outraged the local population which has since staged very regular protests against Nusra.

Nusra have claimed that Division 13 originally attacked them first, but local activists have disputed this. 

“[Nusra] tried to come up with some lie that the 13th Division attacked their bases and homes,” a local activist, told the Daily Beast.

“It’s like claiming that Somalia invaded the United States.”

“The ‘wall of fear’ of Nusra has shattered, to some extent,” an Idlib journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Daily Beast.

Unlike the Islamic State group, Nusra has fought alongside other Syrian rebel groups against both the government and IS. Despite ideological differences with many other rebel groups, Nusra have been considered one of the most effective fighting forces in the opposition.

In contrast to IS, the group has also been more careful not to engage in tactics that alienate local populations - eschewing mass slaughters or harsh imposition of Islamic law. Instead, they have focused more on fighting Assad and his allies. 

In spite of this, there have been a number of brutalities attributed to the group, including the massacre of 20 Druze in Idlib province last June.

Some groups, such as the Southern Front in southern Syria, have publicly disavowed working with Nusra, citing their use of violence against minorities and opposition to a future democratic state. Concerns that association with the group, deemed a terrorist organisation by the UN, would also cause issues with international backers have also featured heavily. 

Nusra has clashes with other rebel groups, particularly those they view as having received American-backing. Last year, Nusra effectively destroyed the Hazzm Movement - a coalition of rebels who reportedly received BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles from the CIA - after the groups began fighting in Aleppo province. 

Despite Nusra's setbacks in Idlib - which they helped conquer as part of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition last year - there are signs that they have been consolidating their power in Aleppo. Public demonstrations of support are still commonplace, especially in areas where they have launched offensives against both government and IS targets in recent weeks. 

Maarat al-Numan, with a population of 58,000, has been considered a significant strategic prize for both the government and opposition forces, lying as it does on the road between Aleppo and Damascus.

Protests against the Assad government began in 2011 and resumed again during the ceasefire, which saw hundreds take to the streets.