For two years Salamiyeh, the Ismaili-majority city 20 miles east of Hama, has skirted much of the violence unleashed on its neighbors despite hosting large anti-government protests. It’s created an environment of political tolerance that differs from Assad regime strongholds and territories held by rebels.
But a series of bombings there, and the looming entry of rebel forces, is poised to bring this quiet city of 75,000 into Syria’s civil war, and risks fraying Salamiyeh’s sectarian harmony that served as an example for the nation before and during the revolution.
The attacks kicked off with a car bomb that ripped through the western neighborhoods of the city, killing at least 42 on Jan. 22, followed by another blast at a factory less than two weeks later, killing dozens. The first explosion was claimed by Jabhat al Nusra and those responsible for the second, which targeted a plant owned by the Defense Ministry that didn’t produce weapons or military equipment, haven’t come forward yet.
The first target was a local carpet factory that served as the headquarters of the Lijan al-Shaabiya, the pro-regime paramilitary group commonly known as Shabiha. Although the attackers succeeded in killing some armed men, civilians also died, including children such as Milad Hamoudi, Mayar al-Meer, Hasan al-Meer, Wafa al-Hajj and Roa Ismail.
Jabhat al Nusra, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization with alleged links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement on jihadist web forums, but there was no accompanying video message.
Salamiyeh is home to the Arab world’s largest population of Ismailis, a small Shiite Muslim sect, and boasts important religious sites such as the putative grave of Imam Ismail and a shrine for the late Aly Khan, father of the current Aga Khan IV. It has also been recognized since 2011 for its early and continuous participation in peaceful protests against the Assad.
The city “has an old history of both education and opposition to the regime; in my time in jail, I knew many people from Salamiyeh,” George Sabra, the president of the Syrian National Council, told Syria Deeply. Eiad Charbaji, a prominent anti-Assad activist, noted that residents of Salamiyeh have defied the “Baath regime since their births.”
Salamiyeh is one of the few communities in Syria with a significant minority population opposed to the regime. The city’s first protest was documented in a YouTube video on April 1, 2011, and dozens have been held since in 2011, 2012 and this year. Over 30 residents have died in the struggle against the Assad regime, including Ali al-Fakhouri (who delivered aid to Rastan, near Homs), Dr. Hayyan Mahmoud and Mulham Rustom. During Fakhouri’s funeral on June 29, 2012, government forces fired on the procession. But state-sponsored violence has largely been muted, as the regime refrained from deploying the army in cities with large minority populations and relied instead on recruiting Shabiha militias and popular committees to impose its will.
(Video showing the aftermath of the bombing)
It’s this unique position of Salamiyeh that elicited quick condemnations for the Nusra bombing. The National Coalition for Syrian Opposition Forces denounced the attack; Zuhair Salim, the spokesman for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood also condemned the bombing and hailed Salamiyeh and the Ismaili community’s role as one of the central forces of the uprising.
Reactions from residents were mixed. One Sunni woman who lost family members in the attack said she hoped that the Assad regime was behind the bombing. Many Ismailis and Sunnis, irrespective of their commitment to the revolution, said that the city—which is around two-thirds Ismaili, with the remaining population mostly Sunni with some Alawites—should stand united so that the social fabric of the community doesn’t fray. The Salamiyeh Local Coordination Committee condemned Nusra’s “cowardly attack which is against the revolution” and said the “heinous crime is not justified,” but also held the regime responsible for the violence.
Despite this spirit, tensions are increasing. “A huge fight broke out at a funeral for one of the martyrs because many blamed the regime while others said the terrorists of Nusra had finally come to get us,” according to an architecture student who lives in Salamiyeh.
Since most of the people killed were pro-regime Shabiha, mourners used the funerals to stage pro-regime rallies. The funeral of one young child, Milad Hamoudi, held up flags of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party which backs the regime. Regime opponents also paid their respects, holding candlelight vigils and raising a sign that read: “The revolution in Salamiyeh opposes terrorism and calling others infidels.” Activists used the attack to push for a renewed role in the revolution, with a special campaign to name one Friday protest: “Salamiyeh is the capital of the peaceful revolution.”
While the bombing has brought some residents closer, it’s clear that tensions are mounting as war creeps into Salamiyeh and its surrounding countryside in Hama. A wounded rebel from Salamiyeh said the Free Syrian Army understands the delicate sectarian balance in the city and wants to protect the large refugee population from Rastan, Homs and Hama that lives there, but they still plan “to rid the city of the Shabiha and nothing more; we have to be careful.”
Local activists said in Skype interviews that they convinced rebels to postpone their entry into the city. But recently even Ismailis have started to work with Islamist groups, recognizing the power that Salafi organizations now wield in Syria. One Ismaili activist said the Salafi jihadist brigade Ahrar al Sham had secured humanitarian aid to the city, and that while he was initially weary of them, he now respects their efforts.
Further jihadist entanglement within the city could light a powder keg, however, and perhaps explode into sectarian strife in the future, pitting Assad regime backed militias against Islamists and rebels and bringing a cycle of violence to what was once seen as a bastion of the nonviolent revolution.