On 21 January, a huge suicide car bombing rocked the Syrian town of Salamiyah, 30 kilometres southeast of Hama in Western Syria. The Salafist-jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra later claimed responsibility for the attack that targeted a gathering of pro-regime thugs (shabbiha) at the carpet factory, but also killed and injured many civilians, including children. The Syrian National Coalition, the leading umbrella group of the opposition, denounced the attack but refused to condemn the Nusra front. Another terrorist bombing with a similar pattern hit a military factory in Salamiyah on 6 February, killing tens of innocent civilians. The explosions of terrorist activity in Salamiyah bring the heated and complex debate involving the Syrian political opposition vis-à-vis jihadist groups back to the fore. They also highlights the increasing participation of such groups on the ground in Syria, the dangers they pose to the revolution, and their utter disregard for civilian life.
Leading the frontlines
A small district with a population of just over 100,000, Salamiyah is known for its diverse yet genuinely harmonious social fabric that goes beyond the hackneyed, empty slogans of “national unity” that dominate the tediously romantic and lustrous ba’athist discourse. Salamiyah, which is made up of the largest Ismaili community in the Middle East in addition to Sunnis, Shia Twelvers, and Alawites, was among the first Syrian cities to join the revolution for freedom and dignity. The first anti-regime demonstration in Salamiyah took place on 25 March, 201a, a week following the deadly crackdown in Dara’a. As early as 1 April 2011, just over two weeks into the uprising, protesters of all sects took to the streets of Salamiyah again, chanting “The Syrian people shall not be humiliated” in solidarity with besieged Dara’a.
Since that day, raucous protests, street arts, flash mobs, candlelight vigils and other forms of unarmed resistance have become regular features of the public space in the city.
The women and girls of Salamiyah have been at the forefront of the uprising since its very beginning. They established a grassroots women coordination committee that is and has been remarkably active on the ground. These women act as citizen journalists; bravely stand in the front lines of protests undeterred by the heavy presence and assaults of security forces; and are subjected to arrests and persecution like their male comrades. Young activists Hadeel Sa’id, Mais Shihawi and Roua Ja’afar – to name but a few – are among several women from Salamiyah who have been arrested by the Syrian regime over the course of the uprising.
Students, too, are a pivotal constituency of the city’s grassroots revolutionary movement, leading and participating in protests inside and outside Salamiyah. The young revolutionaries also turned motorcycle protests and freedom rides into trademarks of the city. Other forms of dissent in Salamiyah include dyeing the streets in red paint following the bread queue massacre in Helfaya; spraying revolutionary graffiti; and participating in general strikes. The revolutionary movement in Salamiyah, however, continues to be forsaken by mainstream media outlets despite tremendous efforts by local media activists to spread the word and document protests, putting themselves under threat of arrest or injury.
In an attempt to quell the protest movement in Salamiyah, the Syrian regime wittingly used”soft” repression instead of naked power. It resorted mainly to daily arrests and kidnappings of both protesters and activists, deploying thugs to attack and intimidate anyone who would speak up against it. In addition, the regime tried – often to no avail – to stir up sectarian tensions among the Ismaili and Sunni populations in the city. One of the rare occasions when regime forces heavily used live ammunition in a demonstration in Salamiyah was during the funeral procession of martyr Jamal Fakhouri on 30 June 2012, killing Ali Qatrib and injuring several others.
“Soft” repression is an uncharacteristic tactic for a regime that is infamous for using unprecedented levels of violence to crush peaceful protests, firing live bullets as soon as the first cry for freedom bellowed in al-Omari mosque in Daraa, and at times attacking unarmed protesters with tanks and mortar shells. Inad Abbas, a defected colonel and high-ranking interior ministry official, explained that the choice of the regime to avoid lethal weaponry in Salamiyah was not a mere coincidence. Abbas claimed that while there were orders to fire at protesters in Hama and “exterminate” them, troops in Salamiyah were explicitly warned against firing even one bullet at protesters. Abbas attributes that dichotomy to the efforts of the regime to portray all protesters as terrorists and extremists, solidifying its image as the safeguard of religious minorities. Although less brutal, the measures adopted by the regime in Salamiyah were not less intimidating. The arbitrary detention of hundreds of activists and protest organisers – many of whom were re-arrested and tortured on several occasions – succeeded in grinding down the protest movement.
Salamiyah has also been hit by a wave of abductions in recent months perpetrated by some Islamist militias. That could not, however, stifle protests completely. Demonstrations are continuing, albeit not with the same regularity and large size that characterised the early months of the revolution. Even the terrorist blast that shook Salamiyah on 21 January did not stop the youth of the community from demanding the downfall of president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and singing for freedom.
Aiding the Displaced
Salamiyah’s contribution to the Syrian uprising has not been limited to protests and creative dissent. The city warmly welcomed thousands of internally-displaced persons who fled the brutal crackdown on Hama and Rastan and Talbiseh in the Homs countryside. Activists from Salamiyeh also volunteered to smuggle food, aid, and medical supplies into besieged areas. Activist Mulham Rustum was shot dead by a regime checkpoint officer while trying to smuggle medical aid into Rastan. His martyrdom affected Salamiyah so profoundly that his funeral procession on June 22, 2012 morphed into one of the largest anti-regime protests the city has seen since the eruption of the uprising.
This is Salamiyah: the city of rebellious carnations and never-fading candles; the ancient town of RomanCanals and castles that was completely destroyed three times in its history, only to rise up from beneath the rubble. It is rising up for a fourth time against the tyranny and subjugation that has suffocated Syria for over four decades. Salamiyah, one of the epicentres of unarmed resistance, is not a city of minorities. Rather, it is city where the masses flocked to the streets as one to demand a free and just Syria for all. It is the birthplace of the great Syrian poet and playwright Muhammad al-Maghout, who wrote of his hometown:
Salamiyah is the tear the Romans shed
over the first prisoner who broke his manacles with his own teeth…
Salamiyah is the little girl
who tumbled at the margins of Europe
while toying with her Fatemid earrings and golden hair.
Ever since, she has been kneeling and weeping, her doll in the sea and her fingers in the desert.
She is bordered by fear on the North; sorrow on the South; dust on the East and by estrangements and ruins on the West…
In each handful of her soil, there is a butterfly’s wing or a prisoner’s chain;
A letter by Al-Mutnabbi or a whip of Al-Hajjaj;
A Caliph’s teeth or an orphan’s tear.
And she never knew hunger,,for her children are as many as her clouds…
But she is forever melancholy for her birds have no shelter.”