One thousand Days Since the Uprising in Syria: The Battle for the Qalamoun

By Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour
December 23, 2013

A few days past the 1000th day since the uprising started in Syria…

After nearly three months of popular protests, June 2011 marked a drastic turn in what had been peaceful demands for democracy in Syria. The use of force by government forces and the acquisition of arms and retaliation by the opposition resulted in the rapid spread of armed conflict in towns and suburbs across Syria. Over the course of the next two years, armed conflict would engulf the entirety of Syria as opposition and government forces battled for control of strategic cities and towns. The escalation of the conflict quickly drew the attention of the international community, not least of whom were extremist fighters from across the globe. Names such as “Jabaat Al Nursa,” “Daash,” and “ISIS” (al-Qaeda affiliates), previously unknown, quickly became familiar entities. The ever-growing presence of foreign fighters in Syria further exasperated the already charged and troubled situation.

Approaching its three-year anniversary, the Syrian conflict continues to add to the over 120,000 casualties, 3 million refugees and over 3 million internally displaced persons. Each day thousands more are forced to flee their ancestral homes, and thousands of homes, churches, schools and mosques are destroyed as community after community struggles with the brokenness of the reality that has become Syria.

One cannot imagine the immeasurable destruction, death, misery, and suffering of the Syrian people. No other country in the world has witnessed the amount of destruction Syria continues to experience! It is enough to mention the beautiful city of Aleppo–its extensive industry now lies in ruin, its thousands of factories are destroyed and looted. As one of the focal points of the Syrian conflict, almost everything in Aleppo has been destroyed, and more than a million people have been forced to flee. Those who remain face shortages of water, electricity, medicine and other basic amenities required for living.

The once popular uprising has evolved in many areas into a vicious sectarian conflict. Longstanding political alliances falling along sectarian lines highlight a conflict between Sunni Muslims (typically allied with the opposition) and Alawite/Shiite Muslims (typically allied with the Assad regime). Caught in the middle of this conflict are millions of Christians. The minority Christian population continues to face targeted violence as churches are burned and looted, and thousands are forced to flee their homes as IDPs and refugees.

For most Syrians, the conflict and crisis creates a reality fraught with poverty, the threat of starvation, and the constant uncertainty of when and where violence will erupt. In a reality dominated by violence and death, the hope of Geneva II remains one of the few sources of optimism for the cessation of violence and a move towards peace. If Geneva II does not result in an end to the conflict, the crisis is sure to continue for at least another decade.

The Qalamoun Area
For most of the conflict, the Qalamoun area, which is midway between Damascus and Homs in central Syria, was a safe heaven for more than 80,000 people seeking refuge from their places of permanent residence. These IDP’s were welcomed by the permanent residents of Nabek, Deir Attieh, Humyra, Haffar and Saddad. Most of these IDP’s came from Baba Amr and Khaldya in Homs fleeing the early violence of the conflict. The villages of the Qalamoun remained safe places of refuge for thousands of IDPs until militants attacked the small town of Saddad during the initial stages of the battle for the Qalamoun.


The Qalamoun Battle


On October 21st, 2013, militants attacked the small town of Saddad (100 km north of Damascus). After the initial attack, the militants took control of the east and south sides of the town. Hundreds of families were made hostages of their own homes, and the militants prevented many from leaving the town. Thousands of families were forced to flee their homes in areas not under the direct control of the militants. Most of those who fled the fighting in Saddad (and some fighting in Haffar) fled to Homs, Damascus, and the surrounding villages of the Qalamoun (mainly Fairousie).

At that time, Humaira and Deir Attieh served as host communities to the many families fleeing the fighting in Saddad and Haffar. Before the Syrian Arm was able to regain control of the town, more than 50 people were killed.

Deir Atteih
Yet, this was only the beginning of the battle for the Qalamoun. In the weeks following the battle for control of Saddad, the focus of the Battle for the Qalamoun shifted to the town of Qara (~10 km southwest of Saddad). In response to the militant offensive in Qara, the regime forces launched an attempt to retake the town. As the regime forces retook Qara, the militants immediately shifted their focus to the town of Deir Attieh. Events unfolding much as they did in Qara and Saddad, the presence of the militants forced thousands of Deir Attieh’s permanent residences, as well as the IDPs who settled there, to flee. After a week of intense fighting, the regime forces regained control of Deir Attieh. Though free from the militants, a week of intense fighting left the town devastated. The hospital, town museum, government buildings, and hundreds of homes were all destroyed, burned and looted.

As the regime forces began to regain control of the town of Deir Attieh, the militants shifted their focus to the town of Nabek. After several weeks of devastating violence, at the time of writing this report the city is under the control of the government forces. Thousands of homes were destroyed and more than 1,500 of those fighting (mostly foreigners) were killed. The city is devastated and is now in a process of healing its wounds, rising up out of misery and a state of devastation to again resume life.

Impact of the Battle for the Qalamoun and Our Relief Work

The Qalamoun battle continues to be another unexpected crisis in the midst of an incredibly dirty war. The events of the past month have affected our ability to distribute humanitarian aid to the IDPs of the region during the months of November and December.

Our storage center in Dier Attieh, which has been one of two of our main supply centers (the other being in Haffar) was looted and emptied of all of the goods stored there. The storage, which is under the supervision of the Islamic Charity Organization of Deir Attieh, lost goods in the amount (estimated) of $60,000.00 USD. This is also true of the storage of our partners in Nabek (the Nabek Charity Organization).

In the weeks since the focus of the Battle for the Qalamoun has shifted way from Deir Attieh, we have made contact with our local partners. During the week of fighting, we were aware that our committee members refused to leave Deir Attieh. All of our partners are OK, but one volunteer was killed. In addition to the damage previously described, almost all of the shops in Deir Atteih were looted and many people lost many of their valuables. We have received numerous reports of people’s homes being subjected to looting from various factions of the conflict.

Deir Attieh’s permanent residents have and continue to host IDPs from other areas in Syria. However, the recent battle for Deir Attieh has caused many of these hosts to become IDPs themselves. At the time of the attack, there were about 5,000 IDPs in Deir Attieh, now only half this number remains.

In the weeks following the end of the battle for Deir Attieh, our partners report that many of those who were displaced are returning to the town. As such, we are working with the Islamic Charity Organization of Deir Attieh to get their distribution back to the level it was prior to the most recent escalation.

In the weeks since the battle for Deir Attieh, the focus of the battle for the Qalamoun has again shifted. Recently the regime wrested control of Nabek from the militants. As the situation in Nabek deteriorated, we made arrangements to make the distribution center in Deir Attieh the main center for distribution in the region. The combination of its location and the strength of the distributing partner give us confidence this is our best strategy.

Due to the recent escalation in the conflict, humanitarian aid was temporarily disrupted in Nabek and Deir Atteih. To circumvent the challenges posed by the conflict, aid was sent from Haffar to Humaira, Breike, and Deir Attieh. Goods during this period were purchased from Homs and sent to the Qalamoun region.

Relief Work

Our relief efforts continue to help thousands of people who are victims of the war in Syria, especially those affected most recently during the Qalamoun Battle.

Thousands of people in Saddad , Haffar, Humaira, Deir Attieh, Nabek, and Qara have received food, hygiene items, and blankets; and hundreds of those affected were offered shelter. Despite the fact that extremist Muslims (mainly foreigners) have looted the town of Saddad and broke into its traditional churches, Muslims and Christians helped and continue to help and shoulder each other during this time of crisis.

When the Christian villages of Saddad and Haffar were attacked, the Muslims of Humiara and Deir Attieh welcomed their people and gave them food and shelter. Reciprocally, when the town of Deir Atteih was attacked, its residents were welcomed by the people of Haffar and Saddad.

A beautiful story comes from Deir Atteih. When extremist militants entered the town, they went to the Orthodox Church with the intention of looting and destroying it. However, the Muslim residents of Deir Attieh were in the church and told the militants: “If you want to defile this church, you will have to kill us first!” What a beautiful gesture of people shouldering each other, protecting each other, and maintaining a life of harmony and coexistence amidst the troubling and torn reality of the Syrian crisis.

The people of Syria deserve to be supported, assisted, and lifted in peace from their current situation. They have the right to live with human dignity and deserve the world’s attention as the crisis continues to grow with little indication of abatement.

Rev. Dr Riad Jarjour is a Presbyterian clergyman from Homs, Syria, now based in Lebanon, who has senior roles in many Middle East Christian organisations. He was formerly General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches and is currently Chairperson of the Board of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue. He administers much of the aid that is distributed by Barnabas Aid in Syria.

Barnabas Aid logo

Barnabas Aid has been working in Syria since 1996 to address the needs of the Christian minority. Since the onset of the civil war in March 2011, Barnabas Aid has become one of the leading providers of emergency aid, providing many forms of assistance to Syria’s suffering Christians, including:

. Food parcels currently helping to feed approximately 30,000 people a month
. Special projects to provide milk for babies and extra help for children who have lost parents in the conflict
. Emergency lamps for areas which no longer have a regular electricity supply
. Medical costs for the sick and wounded
. Training in trauma counselling with a focus on helping children, teenagers and families
. Digging wells in Aleppo where the water supply has been heavily disrupted by the fighting
. Contributing to the building costs and furnishing of a refuge shelter for displaced people in Wadi al-Nasara (“Valley of the Christians”)

As Christmas approaches, heavy snow, rain and freezing temperatures make the need for blankets, heaters and warm clothing more urgent than ever. If you would like to support the work of Barnabas Aid in Syria, you can make a donation here.

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