As Palmyra is regained, frontier towns continue their fight against terrorists
By Nour Samaha
When Daesh militants took over the ancient city of Palmyra last May, they were able to establish a foothold in the heart of Syria, using it as a launching pad to gain territory towards the Mediterranean coast.
The world watched in horror as the terrorist group systematically destroyed historical ruins dating back 2,000 years and used the city’s amphitheater as a stage for the gruesome beheadings of Syrian soldiers and residents. For Syrians in neighboring towns and provinces, the fear was much more real; Daesh was inching closer to their doorsteps.
Almost a year later, the Syrian army and its allies operating under the cover of Russian fighter jets, have slowly managed to inch their way back into Palmyra. The battle to control this strategic city has resulted in fierce clashes, forcing Daesh to retreat from there on intervals. Today, the city is almost fully under the control of the Syrian government again.
“The terrorist organization Daesh is putting up a violent resistance,” a commander with the pro-government group, the Desert Hawks, currently fighting in Palmyra, tells Newsweek Middle East.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he says that “thousands of mines and explosives are planted in every inch of the ground that our men are advancing upon.”
The intense battles have resulted in the Syrian Army recapturing Palmyra, cutting Daesh’s supply road between Raqqa and the city.
Palmyra holds immense strategic significance for both the government and Daesh; it is located in the heart of Homs province, which alongside neighboring Hama, is considered the gateway between the south of the country and its north, as well as the far-east and the coast. The fall of these towns in the hands of Daesh means the country would fracture in half.
For Daesh—currently based in the east—cutting government control in these areas would also enable the organization to establish its own access to the Mediterranean, giving it a free passage to Europe; a serious concern for all players involved.
From Mhardeh and Sqelbiyeh in northern Hama, to Salamiyeh in its heart, to Sadad and Mahin in south-eastern Homs, these towns and cities have played a key role in preventing such an advancement, and, as a result, have become frontier posts for the government along this delicate arc.
Over the past five years, the residents and local pro-government fighters in Homs and Hama have been fending off constant attacks from terrorist groups, such as Daesh and Al Nusra Front, in addition to fighting attempts by opposition groups to take over their towns and dissecting Syria.
During this period, they have witnessed atrocities; from discovering their neighbors slaughtered and thrown into wells, to kidnappings, suicide attacks and barrages of mortar shelling. But the residents have adapted their lives to deal with the fact they will always be facing off attacks; either by joining the ranks of fighters, or by remaining resilient and attempting to normalize their lives as much as possible.
Salamiyeh: Face Off with Terrorists
Nestled in eastern Hama is Salamiyeh, seen as one of the cities protecting the heart of both provinces.
Inside the brightly decorated Al Zahra Mosque sits two people just outside the prayer space; the girl has her head uncovered, and the man beside her is discussing the content of the papers in his hands. Next to them, men and women are milling in and out, laughter punctuating the airwaves before prayer time.
Outside, life is bustling on the streets: School children run past lugging bags packed with books, while young men and women sit together at cafes and bars smoking shisha (water pipe). Store-fronts are open, while carts selling local produce block the main roads.
However, all is not calm; the entrances to Salamiyeh are manned by checkpoints, either belonging to the Syrian army or to local fighting forces allied with the government, checking every vehicle entering the city, while the streets are constantly patrolled in an attempt to protect the neighborhoods. Posters of the fighters who died in combat—either with the army or with the local groups—decorate the walls and streets of the city, only increasing as the weeks pass.
Today Salamiyeh, home to Syria’s Ismaili minority, a branch of Shiite Islam, remains in the crosshairs of the government’s more formidable foes: Al Nusra militants, who are positioned to its west, and Daesh to its east.
“Salamiyeh is important because it connects southern Syria with the north. It is the only supply route now for the government to Aleppo,” says Ammar, a resident whose ancestors were among the first settlers in the city. Having studied journalism in the former Soviet Union, he now teaches Russian to high school students. Sitting in one of the local bars, he says: “Basically all of Syria is now passing through Salamiyeh.”
The origins of the name Salamiyeh depends on who you ask; some say it was named after a Roman emperor called Salamis. Others say it was named after a flood that destroyed the city, leaving only 100 survivors—salim (safe) and miyeh (one hundred).
A religiously open city, it has a population of around 120,000—the majority of whom are Ismaili, but with a smattering of Jaafaris (another branch of Shiite Islam) and Sunnis. There are an additional 100,000 internally displaced Syrians from the surrounding areas, including Raqqa, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor. Over the past decades, Salamiyeh has built itself a reputation of producing poets, intellectuals and artists and earned the nickname “City of 1,000 Poets.”
A poor city that depends largely on its agriculture to survive, Salameiteh was home to a number of popular protests at the start of the uprising in 2011. Following demonstrations in other areas of the country, residents of the city also took to the streets, chanting the slogans of the revolution.
“People did go to the streets and take part in the protests, believing they were asking for something,” says Ammar. “There was a decent-sized activist, opposition presence here.”
But after several months the protests started to die down, and many opposition [groups and] activists left the country.
“It was clear from the start that the protests were against Syrian society and getting very sectarian,” says Ahmad, another resident who had many friends join the protests. “I would tell them not to participate. After some time, they either left the city or changed their minds and stopped going,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
As the situation in Syria worsened, so did life in Salamiyeh. Lack of access to the produce it needs to sustain itself, the city now depends largely on aid from nongovernmental organizations. Furthermore, assassinations, kidnappings and muggings were on the rise, and for a period of time it was considered dangerous to walk around certain neighborhoods alone.
“It developed into a tit-for-tat scenario and a lot of it revolved around ransoms; pro-opposition groups would kidnap people from pro-government areas, while gangs in government areas would kidnap for money,” says one resident, whose daughter escaped an attempted kidnapping.
In an attempt to shield itself from attacks and in the absence of a consistent army presence, the city’s local forces built themselves up, including the National Defense Forces, the Kataeb Baath and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP); a secular Lebanese-Syrian political movement that was formed in the 1930s and has had a tumultuous relationship with the Syrian state over the decades.
“You have two kinds of fighters; the ones who leave the town to fight on the frontlines, and you have those who remain within the towns borders and focus on protecting the neighborhoods,” says a commander allied with one of the local forces, on condition of anonymity.
According to the fighters, the militants have been able to maintain their positions in the nearby villages as a result of their relationship with some of the local Bedouins. “They’re the ones who always help them out, they’ve had relations with them for a long while now,” he says, adding that other Bedouins were fighting with the army.
mall clashes play out on a regular basis in the nearby villages as militants attempt to put more pressure on Salamiyeh, which has been a regular scene of car bombs in the past. Just last week, on the first day of the cessation of hostilities, a car bomb exploded at the entrance of the city, killing two people.
“The enemy is strong, they have improved their tactics, but we have strength because we believe in giving our blood to defend our country,” says Aazouz, a 27-year-old local fighter.
Since the start of the war, over 6,000 people have been killed—either in combat, or as a result of suicide attacks and explosions in the city, according to the residents.
Mhardeh: Fighting to Preserve an Identity
Further north in Hama province, lies the Greek Orthodox town of Mhardeh, located on the southern edge of Sahl El Ghab and connecting northern Hama to southern Idlib—currently under the control of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups.
Mhardeh is home to approximately 20,000 people and has been a frontline town since 2012. Strategically important for the militants, Mhardeh has been attacked by both Al Nusra Front and pro-Free Syrian Army groups; and today they are still located a couple of villages away.
In the spring of 2014, after opposition groups captured the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, they advanced along the Aleppo-Damascus highway towards Hama city. As they swept through the area, they were able to seize control of Morek, Souran and Halfaya—Mhardeh’s neighboring areas to the east. At this point the groups made several deadly attempts to capture Mhardeh as well, but were pushed back by local forces.
“This is an incredibly sensitive front. They were raining TOW missiles down on us,” says George, the local SSNP commander defending the town. “They have so many TOW missiles, they would be using them not to hit ‘big’ targets, but to use against people on motorcycles.”
“Now we have the situation under control,” he adds. “They’ve tried to advance but so far we’ve prevented them.”
For the SSNP, this has been one of the toughest frontlines in their battles. “If the militants can take this area, it would be like a domino effect, they’ll be able to take over Sqelbiyeh and Hama city,” explains George.
Recently, in a show of defiance against the shelling, a group of young residents took to the streets and painted smiley faces over every point hit by missiles; today the roads are dotted with the bright yellow drawings.
“They wanted to show that they can face this and they will not hide in their homes,” says Gebran, a Mhardeh resident. Gebran returned to his hometown from Nigeria about four years ago, after the situation worsened in Syria. A biomedical engineer by profession, he gave it all up to protect his town from attacks.
“I put my life on hold to defend my home and my country,” he says. “One fighter of ours is worth tens of their mercenaries, and we will succeed because we are from here.”
Seventeen-year-old Johnny, a local SSNP fighter, sits back and recounts the clashes he has been involved in. The high school student joined the group three years ago, and now schedules his fighting around his schoolwork.
“I’ll attend my classes, and afterwards I’ll come here and fight,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
Making himself comfortable in the hastily constructed hut in one of the military outposts located on town’s outskirts, the slight teenager twirls a cigarette in his fingers as he talks animatedly about which weapons he prefers to use.
“This is what I want to do, no one is forcing me,” he adds.
Mahin: No One Left to Fight
Crossing the Syrian desert in Homs to the edge of the province in the south-east one reaches the abandoned town of Mahin. The only life that can be found today are stray dogs.
The town, which used to be home to approximately 20,000 people who were largely pro-opposition, fell into the hands of the Free Syrian Army and Al Nusra Front in late 2012 until a local reconciliation deal was brokered in December 2013.
In August 2015, Daesh began a large-scale offensive and captured the neighboring city of Qaraytayn, where it launched attacks on Mahin and Sadad, until the former surrendered in November 2015.
Intense clashes ensued, and eventually the militants were driven out of Mahin in December 2015—clashes are ongoing in Qaraytayn.
The majority of civilians in Mahin fled to Qaraytayn when Daesh took over. The houses are now completely abandoned, personal belongings still strewn on the ground, windows and doors taken off their hinges; ransacked by looters in the race to gather as much as possible of the “spoils of war.”
In one of the schools, graffiti belonging to both Al Nusra Front and Daesh can be found scrawled on the walls inside the classrooms. Glass lays shattered on the floor, and school books are left abandoned on the desks. In one classroom, math equations are written up on the chalkboard, as if frozen in time.
“This was one of the toughest battles we faced,” one commander from a local fighting force from Homs tells Newsweek Middle East. He points to the shrapnel scars across his face that he endured from fighting in Mahin. “We lost nine fighters in just one day.”
Describing the militants’ fighting prowess he says, “The enemy is strong, and keeps getting stronger.”
“We have quantity in terms of weapons, but they have quality; they have Javelin missiles, TOW missiles, Kornet missiles,” he adds.
Today, only the sound of the icy desert wind can be heard whistling through the empty corridors.
The events of Mahin had a direct impact on neighboring Sadad, a historic Syriac Orthodox town, where residents were forced to fend off numerous assaults by both Al Nusra Front and Daesh. Sadad is also strategically important for the militants due to its location on the Homs-Damascus highway and its proximity to Lebanon. In 2014, the residents fought against gruesome attacks by Al Nusra Front, which managed to occupy the town for a week, killing dozens and throwing the bodies in wells. Others were kidnapped, and are still missing.
“It was horrific; they slaughtered people and just threw them in the wells,” says one fighter who had seen the bodies.
Just a few months ago the residents were again forced to defend themselves, this time against Daesh militants, who were using Mahin as a base to launch attacks. Today, a massive poster depicting all those who died fighting flaps in the wind on the town hall building. Other individual posters of the dead fighters decorate lamp posts throughout the town. Remnants of vehicles destroyed by missiles lay abandoned on side roads. But the residents of Sadad remain defiant; stores are open and the streets hum with the low chatter between neighbors.
“The last time, the militants took the town and we had to fight back,” says Khatar, a resident. “Now we are no longer afraid because we know our strengths.”
While the situation around Sadad is relatively calm, the town is not out of the woods yet. The Syrian army has positioned numerous artillery batteries and rocket launchers along the highway between Sadad and Mahin in an effort to bolster its presence.
After the army’s success in recapturing Palmyra, its eyes are now on Qaraytayn—Sadad’s neighbor. While battles are currently ongoing in the city, a new push is expected in an effort to push back Daesh from Homs, with the ultimate intention of preventing the country from splitting.
If, however, the army is unable to push Daesh and the other militants back, then the provinces of Hama and Homs will be forced to remain as Syria’s frontline and their residents will continue to be vulnerable targets.