Syrian pro-democracy protesters attacked by Jabhat al-Nusra rebels as they return to streets during ceasefire

Demonstrations have been returning to the streets amid a lull in fighting but the al-Qaeda linked group is cracking down

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The Independent Online

Five years after the Arab Spring, the fragile Syrian ceasefire is seeing thousands of pro-democracy protesters return to the streets to call for the removal of Bashar al-Assad.

But whereas 2011 saw protesters shot in the streets by security forces, a new crackdown is being launched against demonstrators by Islamist rebel groups.

Protesters have reportedly been beaten, threatened and forcibly detained by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate that was once linked to Isis.

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Protesters carry Free Syria Army flags and shout slogans during an anti-government protest after Friday prayers in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, Syria, March 11, 2016.

One such attack came on Friday in the town of Maarrat al-Numan, a Free Syria Army (FSA) stronghold in Idlib province.

Footage showed jubilant protesters waving the three-starred opposition flag, performing folk dances and singing anti-Assad songs.

But the mood quickly changed as a squad of Jabhat al-Nusra militants and supporters swept into to square, riding motorbikes and waving the black flag of jihad.

Masked extremists could be seen forcing their way into the crowd and seizing control of the sound system to drown out the pro-democracy chants with shouts of “Allahu Akbar”.

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Jabhat al-Nusra supporters drowned out the pro-democracy protesters after crashing the protest

Scuffles broke out after they took the stage from the prominent opposition activist, Abu Elias al-Mairi, who had been leading the singing.

Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute, said Maarrat al-Numan has been under the control of the FSA’s 13th Division and Fursan al-Haq (Knights of Justice) rebel group.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the FSA have co-operated sporadically during the five-year civil war but the groups remain rivals and have fought for control of strategic areas.

Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV, wrote on Twitter that the Islamists see the FSA flag as a symbol of democracy and secularism – both of which they want to destroy.

She said Jabhat al-Nusra had attempted to ban the symbol in Idlib and stipulated that only jihadist banners could be carried, but was having difficulty enforcing the prohibition.

Several other Syrian towns and cities saw protests on Friday, including Azaz in Aleppo province, where Islamist leaders from the Ahrar ash-Sham group reportedly joined demonstrators.

They came days after militants were filmed detaining activists, smashing cameras and ripping revolutionary flags at a pro-democracy protest in the northern city of Idlib.

Witnesses told the AFP news agency Jabhat al-Nusra militants threatened to kill them while waving al-Qaeda’s black flag, but activists have vowed to continue fighting oppression.

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Protesters carry a Free Syrian Army flags during an anti-government protest in the al-Sukari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, March 11, 2016.

“The Nusra fighters came out and began to fight the protesters, to threaten them with their guns saying, 'If you don't leave the streets, we'll start to fire,'” a man calling himself Ibrahim al-Idlibi said.

Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, from the Syrian American Council in Washington, said the temporary “cessation of hostilities” that started last month has sparked a resurgence in political rallies.

Without the fear of being caught in fighting or bombed, civilians have been taking to the streets once more in scenes reminiscent of the more optimistic days of 2011.

But Jabhat al-Nusra is “not happy with the development”, Mr Ghanem wrote on the Huffington Post website.

“Many analysts have wrongly interpreted Nusra's growth as a sign that Syrians have abandoned their demands for democracy and that the Syrian conflict is now a sectarian war,” he added. 

“The recent protests in Syria have corrected this notion as well, reaffirming that even after five long years of war, Syrians still desire democracy and do not embrace Nusra's vision for Syria."

UN-brokered talks between the Syrian regime and rebels, excluding Isis, al-Nusra and other designated terrorist groups, are due to start in Geneva on Monday.

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