Municipal workers rushed on Sunday evening to clean the “Douar al-Nisr” area in the southern gateway to Hama and to decorate it with flags and photos of the “beloved President”. Monday 13 February marks the date for unveiling the statute of the “Eternal Leader” accompanied by chants, “dabkeh” (traditional dance form) and “patriotic” slogans. The scene recalls the events the city’s residents lived through after the huge massacre of 1982 and the collective execution of the residents of Hamidiya neighborhood 35 years ago.
“Black Monday” also witnessed bloody confrontations between groups claiming to be fighting the ruling regime and defending the Syrian people. The confrontation resulted in the death of dozens of Hama’s residents and the execution of many of their relatives. This massacre of friends who had come to mark the anniversary of the “great massacre” occurred to the north of the stage where al-Assad’s statue was to be unveiled.
Hama witnessed three incidents on February that reflect its worsening situation during the Syrian revolution. Not only have the residents of this city been deprived of marking the anniversary of the massacre but the regime also rubbed salt into old wounds by reinstating the statue of Hafez al-Assad 6 years after removing it, at a time when the dream of liberating the region fills the hearts of some residents and provokes anxiety among others. Factions in the province, and in northern Syria in general, have become fragmented while some residents feel increasingly removed from national identity, as demonstrated in the security situation of the “liberated” countryside, creating unprecedented levels of infighting and retaliations.
Anniversary of the “great massacre” passes unmarked
During the first three years of the revolution against the Syrian regime, residents of Hama returned to marking the anniversary of the 1982 massacre with rallies, protests and distribution of tracts in Hama, its countryside and in other Syrian cities in general. However, in April 2013, the entire city fell to the Syrian regime and its militias and the memorial events began to disappear. Last year and this year, memorial events were limited to the publication of some reports and articles in local and Arab media channels, along with a timid response on social media recalling the events of 35 years ago.
At the beginning of 2013, forced migration of the city’s residents, youth and fighters began towards the “liberated” North in search of a new home far from the grip of the security and military apparatus, far from arrests, enforced disappearances and forced conscription into al-Assad’s army and militias. The flow of thousands of displaced people from affected cities and towns turned the city of Hama, in a matter of a few years, into a big evacuation center with a marked absence of young people, under the control of security militias and groups under different names.
The young people of Hama city and its countryside became divided between factions and armed groups while others were dispersed in several countries of asylum. The memorial events to mark the “great massacre” have lost their allure with each year that passes. Activists attribute this to the noticeable decline of the peaceful mobilization, the dominance of ideology over the military side and the deviation of some armed groups away from the aims of the revolution, while the Syrian regime and its allies have seen their military and political position strengthened. Meanwhile, the killing has continued for the sixth year, making massacres something the Syrian people have become all too familiar with and accustomed to living through.
The Massacre of Hama 2 – 28 February
The massacre was carried out by al-Assad’s forces in the city of Hama, through a vast military attack from the city’s four axes, accompanied by ground and air bombings using different weapons. It resulted in the death of about forty thousand people and the migration of about a hundred thousand others. Fifteen thousand people are still classified as missing today. The regime’s war machine destroyed around 30 – 40 % of the city’s neighborhoods.
Source: Syrian Organization for Human Rights
Al-Assad’s power strengthened by “the idol”
The al-Assad regime used a “fait accompli” policy to strengthen its power in Hama, like it did in the other Syrian provinces under its control. The regime randomly arrests residents and forces young men to join the army, forcing the majority of them to escape from Hama to other places they consider safer, even though they are bombed with all types of weaponry. Thus, in the absence of revolutionary mobilization in Hama, the Syrian regime has strengthened its power in the city using its security apparatus and local militias.
Al-Assad also reinforced his control over the center of the city, transforming it into a military fortress using the Iranian training centers of the 42nd Division located in the southern suburbs of the city, the military airport located in the western suburbs and the Zayn al-Abidin mountain in the northern axis of the city, along with around 100 military checkpoints spread throughout the city’s neighborhoods and main streets. As a result, it is almost impossible for the opposition to enter the city or carry out military attacks against al-Assad’s forces.
The Syrian regime was forced to remove Hafez al-Assad’s statue in June 2011, after a massacre by security forces on “Children of Liberty” Day, which resulted in the death of 60 of the city’ young men who went out to join peaceful protests and were met with gunshots. Al-Assad resorted to removing the statute in an effort to reduce local residents’ outrage and for fear of having it forcibly removed as was the case in other areas of Syria.
The removal of the statue, or “the idol”, as Hama’s residents describe it, was met with celebrations around Douar al-Nisr in the southern entrance to Hama, which lasted for days. The statue represented a painful memory for families of victims of the 1982 massacre. This prompted some protestors to put a donkey on the spot where the statue had stood right after its removal. This is why Syrians sing the following line at protests: “Did you hear what happened in al-Douar? They removed Hafez and replaced him with a donkey”.
At a time when Hafez al-Assad’s statute is being resurrected in Hama, the people who previously succeeded in removing it are killing each other, thanks to the emergence of strange ideologies previously unknown to the Syrian people. This has made yesterday’s comrades into today’s enemies.
Unfortunately, today, the revolutionaries who were behind the statue’s removal are themselves the reason for its restoration, as a result of their demagoguery and factionalism. which displaced their loyalty to their country and their revolution.
We all have a duty to reflect and rethink, before Hafez al-Assad’s statues are restored in all areas of Syria. The latest events prove, without a doubt, that the despicable ideological and factional dogmatism has only served Bashar and his regime.
Hama massacre marked by ISIS methodology
The warnings by Free Syrian Army commanders and others who split from the Fatah al-Sham were ignored since Fatah el-Sham accepted to pledge alliance to Jund Al-Aqsa in October 2016. The army described the step as an attempt to conceal the activities of Jund Al-Aqsa, which has continued to organize military camps in the countryside of Idlib, “spreading all kinds of takfeer (excommunication)”. The faction has not changed this policy and is imitating the methods used by ISIS since its formation in 2013.
During that period, some members split from Jund al-Aqsa, who are spread throughout the countryside of Hama, and formed the Liwaa al-Aqsa. Meanwhile, the faction’s division in Sarmin in Idlib province pledged alliance to Fatah al-Sham, in a move that was described as “ceremonial”.
Fatah al-Sham is considered one of the most prominent formations in the recently formed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Organization for the Liberation of the Levant). At the time, Houssam al-Shafai, spokesman for Fatah al-Sham, described the soldiers of Jund al-Aqsa as “pure mujahideen – everybody heard of their role in the battle to liberate Idlib”. However, these “mujahideen” became a scourge for the members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the factions of the southern countryside of Hama and Idlib during infighting that began between the two sides on 13 February.
Yesterday’s comrades are today’s enemies
“Al-Aqsa” has become an enemy to the factions of the Free Army, although the two had fought side by side during the most recent battle of Hama at the beginning of October 2016. The battle was named “Ghazwat Marwan Hadid”, with the devastation reaching the gates of the city. However, the battle gradually subsided after confrontations launched by the faction against Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and other factions in Jabal al-Zawiya, later spreading into the countryside of Hama.
Since that time, no faction from northern Syria was able to have any sway over Jund al-Aqsa’s conduct. This was openly admitted by Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, the former spokesman of Ahrar Al-Sham who later joined Tahrir al-Sham. Al-Muhajir told Enab Baladi that Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the head of Fatah al-Sham, has publicly declared that he is unable to control Jund al-Aqsa.
Various cities and towns that are seen as iconic by Hama’s residents, such as Kafr Zita, Murak and Taybat al-Imam, have turned into battlefields after Liwaa al-Aqsa, Jund al-Aqsa’s division in the area, sent its fighters to target factions of Jaysh al-Nasr and Firqat al-Wusta. This has escalated into field executions of fighters from the factions, most of whom are residents of Hama province.
The debate between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Liwaa al-Aqsa in the southern countryside of Idlib lasted for six hours. The debate failed to “curb the extremism” of the latter, whose members carried out suicide bombings in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s headquarters after its representative Abu Abdallah al-Ghazzawi and its religious officials Abu Ahmad Has and Abu Dharr al-Surani, rejected a term requiring submission to a Sharia court agreed upon by both sides.
During the debate, al-Ghazzawi, Has and al-Surani used only takfeeri expressions concerning Tahrir al-Sham’s fighters. They did not deny “their new relationship” with Islamic State, considering them to be “Muslims”. This is when they launched their first attack on Kafr Zita in the northern countryside of Hama, then on the villages of Kafr Sajna and al-Tamana in the southern countryside of Idlib. Al-Liwaa took over the headquarters of Jaysh al-Nasr and al-Firqat al-Wusta as well as confiscating weapons stocks and arresting dozens of members of the Free Army.
The towns of Kafr Zita, Tamanaa, Khan Shaykhun, Murak and Reqaya in the countryside of northern Hama and southern Idlib became the site of battles between the two sides lasting for five days, until Liwaa al-Aqsa fighters were trapped in Khan Shaykhun and Murak. Dozens of fighters were killed on both sides, but the confrontations subsided after an agreement was reached under which Liwaa al-Aqsa’s fighters would leave the area for territories in eastern Syria under ISIS control.
The number of those killed by Liwaa al-Aqsa, including both fighters and civilians, has risen to around 600, most of them from the provinces of Hama and Idlib. Each day, an influx of unidentified dead bodies arrives at field hospitals in the region.
The massacres carried out by the faction’s fighters that have been documented up until now are the following: killing of 43 members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, killing of 130 members of the Free Army and about 20 civilians who were killed and kidnapped in different circumstances.
Source: human rights activists in the countryside of Idlib
Field Executions and al-Aqsa heads to “the land of the Caliphate”
The two sides have spared no effort in the fighting. A media source from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham revealed to Enab Baladi that dozens of the group’s fighters had been killed. As for Liwaa al-Aqsa, the number of deaths is estimated to be more than 100. Meanwhile, only one prisoner exchange deal was carried out by the two parties, which included 15 prisoners (three from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and 12 mostly from Ahrar al-Sham) in exchange for 15 prisoners from Liwaa al-Aqsa who were being held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
The first field executions were carried out by Liwaa al-Aqsa in the town of Moqa in northern Khan Shaykhun after they had attacked a court belonging to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Liwaa al-Aqsa released the detainees and executed 43 court officials, according to leaders in Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This was followed by collective execution of fighters from the Free Army in Hama province after having arrested them on 8 February.
According to information obtained by Enab Baladi, more than 130 fighters belonging to different factions of the Free Army, mostly from Jaysh al-Nasr and al-Firqa al-Wusta, were killed by the al-Aqsa jihadi faction. This was confirmed by Mohammed Rasheed, the spokesman for Jaysh al-Nasr, who also said that 72 members of the faction were killed nine days after they had been moved to Liwaa al-Aqsa’s detention centers in Khan Shaykhun in southern Idlib.
After many rounds of battles, the confrontations were halted under a “secret” agreement whose terms Enab Baladi obtained from an informed source. The two main reasons that the agreement was accepted were that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had taken control of Tallat al-Sayyad, a hill that overlooks Khan Shaykhun, considered to be Liwaa al-Aqsa’s central headquarters in Idlib. The other reason is the human losses suffered after participation by Turkestanis in al-Aqsa, which witnessed splits in its ranks during the infighting.
Under the agreement, the fighters of the Liwaa al-Aqsa jihadi faction will leave for Raqqa, taking with them only their light weapons, via the Athreya–Khanasir road in Hama’s eastern countryside. The Islamic Party of Turkestan will guarantee and oversee the evacuation process, after the fighters relinquish their heavy weapons and military locations. The agreement was welcomed by al-Aqsa’s fighters, as confirmed by an audio recording of one of its fighters obtained by Enab Baladi, in which he says, “To Raqqa my brothers… We will go to the land of the Caliphate”.
Rage in Hama’s countryside
The infighting between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Liwaa al-Aqsa took place amid silence by most of the region’s factions. Some said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had refused the help offered by Ahrar al-Sham, which had led the fighting against Jund al-Aqsa late last year, along with other factions.
Ahrar al-Sham’s spokesman, Ahmed Kara Ali, responded in an interview with Enab Baladi to the claims of al-Ahrar’s silence regarding what is happening, saying, “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in particular have adopted a new approach, particularly regarding this issue. They have dealt with it as if it were a problem with a group that it has control over. The intervention of any faction would embarrass all the parties.”
Developments on the ground and the conflict between factions have provoked anger among civic activists and opposition leaders alike, especially after news of massacres by al-Aqsa of Free Army fighters. They criticized Hayat Tahrir al-Sham for the way it is dealing with the issue and for agreeing to the jihadi factions leaving for Raqqa with their light weapons instead of putting them on trial.
Based on Enab Baladi’s interviews, many are strongly against allowing the “extremists” to leave for Raqqa. Most observers of developments in northern Syria are surprised at the “powerlessness” of a faction that claims to represent two-thirds of military force on the ground (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and that includes dozens of special forces, to “restrain the Khawarij (an extreme sect)” in Murak and Khan Shaykhun, in reference to the fighters of Liwaa al-Aqsa.
Others, however, had another perspective, considering that those most affected by the departure of the jihadi faction’s fighters are “the eastern branch of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” because the fighters will go to Raqqa through the group’s territory, “which may make them the direct targets of al-Aqsa fighters when they leave.”
Overall, experts in jihadist movements view the infighting as being between two parties who both carry the Salafi Jihadist ideology. They describe this infighting as a “fight based on a single approach”, far from a national outlook that meets the aspirations of Syrians. From their point of view, the biggest victims in this infighting are the Free Army’s factions in the region.
The events that took place in Hama and its countryside in “Black February” will remain etched in the minds of residents and the Free Army’s fighters . It is a clear indication that the continued fragmentation of anti-regime forces will lead to bloodshed among “brothers in arms” and residents alike and the reassertion of al-Assad’s rule at the expense of the Syrian people. This calls for a review of the current situation so that Syrians are not left facing only two bloody options – either tyranny or extremist foreign ideologies.
How do intellectuals in the province see the conflict?
Morhaf Saqqa – Doctor and Islamic researcher from Hama
“The massacre committed by Jund al-Aqsa two days ago, with the killing of more than 150 young men from Hama who were being held by the group, is “corruption in the land”, as described by the Sharia. They are considered as Khawarij (an extreme sect). It reminds us of ISIS’ conduct in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, when it killed prisoners of war and fighters from the Free Army that it was detaining and others.
Jund al-Aqsa is following in the footsteps of ISIS. Those who enabled this malignant cancer to take over the thoughts and behavior of our youth are responsible for this crime, as well as all those who sheltered and protected them, or failed to punish them according to the Sharia.
This crime is not any less heinous than that committed against the child whose legs were blown off by an airstrike. In fact, it is more brutal. This crime took place during a month in which the residents of Hama commemorate the Hama massacre that took place on the same day in 1982. When will our young people understand that such ideologies and organizations are only agendas designed to make brothers into enemies who murder one another?”
Hadham Zouhour Adi – Writer and researcher from Hama
“The restoration of Hafez al-Assad’s statue to the same spot from which it was removed in Hama, along with all the other statues across Syria that were destroyed or removed, is not the only thing that draws our attention. What is really remarkable is the fighting between Jund al-Aqsa and the Free Army, especially given the large number of young men who have died in these battles.
It is difficult not to conclude that what is happening is an intentional provocation of a relatively calm city and that there are plans to destroy it once again under the pretext that there are terrorists lurking near or inside the city. I hope Hama’s youth won’t give the regime the chance to achieve this plan and I hope they will follow our prophet’s saying, “The strong man is not he who is good at wrestling; the strong man is he who controls himself in the face of anger”.
The revolutionaries must be careful and must beware of extremist infiltrators. They are a trap sent by al-Assad. They are the ones spreading sedition between factions, leading to a large number of deaths on both sides, most of them young fighters who beat back the regime at the gates of Hama.”
Abdel Nasser Houchen: Lawyer and human rights activist from Hama’s countryside
“It has turned into a race between cities to make them forget the original aims of the revolution instead of overthrowing the regime. The massacre of our sons and brothers is closely linked to what is happening in Hama, whose liberated people were expected to take over the leadership of the armed struggle after they had demonstrated leadership during the peaceful mobilization. Instead, overnight, it became a city ruled by thugs, expelling residents into the countryside to meet their death outside the city’s walls.
The truce between Hama and the regime shattered the hopes of many people who dream of freedom. The continuation of this truce for four years was crowned with the return of the statue of the departed (Hafez al-Assad). This is a sign of the level of subservience and humiliation to which Hama has sunk. Unfortunately, those who committed the massacres against the Free Army in Kafr Zita are none other than our compatriots who were expelled from the city and who we sheltered in our own homes and who ate our food and drank our water.
The killers and their victims both participated in the battle of Marwan Hadid. They were partners in blood, from Jaysh al-Nasr, Jaysh al-Ezza, and Jund al-Aqsa. This is a scandalous betrayal and a stab in the back by people who exploited our generosity. When we asked them to protect our homes , they responded by killing our best young men.
We are perpetually the victims, from 1982 until the end of time, betrayed by traitors, those who accepted the truce with the regime, and traders in blood and religion. Our tragedy began when we were silent over the martyrs of the 1980s even though we saw the criminals in front of our very own eyes. Those who have been killing us since the eighties are still ruling us. How can anyone who knows he has a right forsake it? Is our chivalry gone? Did we lose our dignity when we accepted security and safety instead? In short, we have committed a crime against ourselves. We gave up our dignity in exchange for a fake security offered by a murderous criminal rapist. Our biggest loss are the internally displaced, not those who left the country.”
Issam Lahham – Writer and journalist from Hama
“It seems that Hama’s fate is to always pay the highest price for freedom and moderation. 35 years ago, it witnessed the worst of Hafez al-Assad’s crimes. Today, on the same date, it witnesses the most horrible crime by militants against its revolutionaries. This makes February a black dot on Hama’s history that will never be erased or forgotten.
Re-installing the statue of Hafez al-Assad, who committed the Hama massacre that claimed the lives of forty thousand martyrs at the very least, is a hidden message that the man who committed that massacre remained in power and died as president. Now, history will repeat itself with his son who has killed nearly half a million Syrians and who will continue to govern until power passes to a new member of the family of murderers.
Perhaps the timing of the statue’s restoration and the horrible crime committed by extremists – who appear to be from Liwaa al-Aqsa but hide behind several names – sends a message to Hama’s residents that they are faced with two choices – either you forget the bigger killer and allow him to stay or you’ll be killed by the extremists”.
Mohammed al-Sakkaf: Doctor and a human rights activist from Hama
“The infighting is a destruction of Hama’s revolutionary military bedrock. Those who know the reality and follow the reports and statistics know that this is a real “holocaust”. Add to that the type of soldiers killed in the infighting. I know the ideological backgrounds of all those who were killed and who are currently involved in the infighting. They did not embrace Salafist or takfeeri ideology at all. They were forced into it due to the absence of a proper representative of the national revolutionary project.
Radical Islamic organizations, particularly takfeeri ones such as Liwaa al-Aqsa, have a magical ability to brainwash and dupe their members. This has made things even worse and led to many cases in which the killer was related to the victim or from the same neighborhood and they had fought alongside each other in many battles against the Baathist regime.”