A Syrian Town Resisted Islamists … And Then the Regime Attacked
Russian or Syrian planes killed 68 civilians in Atarib
In September 2017, Hayat Tahrir Ash Sham, or HTS – an Al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Syria – launched what it described as a “major offensive.” In response, the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad and the Russian air force intensified air strikes on population centers in parts of Syria controlled by local insurgents.
At least 68 people – mostly civilians – died.
Atarib is a town of 10,600 and a trading center in the northwestern, agricultural part of Aleppo province, 15 kilometers from the Turkish border. Its population includes a number of university-educated young people. Atarib offered safe harbor to insurgents, who gained control of the town in July 2012.
Islamic State appeared in Atarib literally overnight in late 2013. Its local cell consisted of a group of foreign fighters from the former Jabhat An Nusra. They immediately began convincing insurgents of local units of the Free Syrian Army to join them, and attempted to embed themselves in the community, offering bread, fuel and water at low prices.
Simultaneously, ISIS ran a campaign of clandestine arrests, abductions and assassinations of anyone who opposed or dared question it.
As the fear of ISIS spread, demonstrations erupted — to which the extremists reacted with additional oppression. In January 2014, they shelled the town and twice attempted to storm it. Quickly-organized resistance by local insurgents and civilians beat back both attempts. Later the same day, the insurgents stormed the local ISIS headquarters and killed or arrested all of the extremists. Atarib thus became one of the first ISIS-free places in this part of Syria.
Ever since, the town has remained under local control. It’s protected by groups of the Free Syrian Army, which are supported by strong civilian authorities. The latter includes a well-staffed squad of the little-known Free Police, a force established in 2013 through reorganization of the former Syrian police.
Russian Su-34s. AAN photo. Victims of the air strike on Atarib on Nov. 13, 2017. Fatemah Alabed photo
Over time, Atarib resisted all of HTS’s attempts to take over, even after the group assimilated several smaller insurgent groups from western Aleppo in early 2017. In early October 2017, local residents staged an anti-HTS protest. They organized a similar protest on Nov. 13, 2017.
Despite all of this, Atarib was bombed fiercely – especially by the Russians – through 2016 and early 2017. An air raid on Nov. 13, 2017 killed 60 people. Russian sources described extensive use of thermite-filled RBK-500 cluster bombs.
The Nov. 13 air strike possibly targeted a meeting between the HTS and Harakat Noureddin Az Zengh, a group formerly aligned with the United States. After Washington withdrew support in October 2015, the group drifted into extremism — and, in early 2017, began making overtures to HTS.
Despite this, Harakat Noureddin Az Zengh and HTS occasionally fought. In November 2017 they proposed to work out their differences … and chose Atarib as their meeting place. The confab ended one hour earlier than planned, and the participants left the building. That’s when warplanes struck.
Exactly who attacked remains unclear. There were reports the attackers were Russian Su-34s launching guided missiles. Considering the methods and results, an attack by regime Su-22s or Su-24s seems as likely.
The attackers missed the building where the meeting took place. Instead, they hit the nearby prison and a heavily-trafficked road. Instead of the HTS leadership, the bombs killed 68 civilians, including women and children and at least 13 officers of the Free Police.
The regime or its allies bombed a town that had successfully resisted militant influence, missing the Islamists and killing scores of civilians. Equally worrying is the fact that the massacre caused no public outcry in the West.