Warning: This site contains images and graphic descriptions of extreme violence and/or its effects. It's not as bad as it could be, but is meant to be shocking. Readers should be 18+ or a mature 17 or so. There is also some foul language occasionally, and potential for general upsetting of comforting conventional wisdom. Please view with discretion.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Latakia Massacres, August 2013

Latakia Massacres, August 2013 
November 19, 2015
(incomplete, last edits (hostages) Dec. 16)

This post will serve as a "masterlist" for a few posts on the  August, 2013 massacre or cluster of massacres around Sheikh Nabhan mountain in Latakia province. Event intro, expanded from the FSA-ISIS teamwork post, and may be added to.  ...It's not a recent case, but relevant. I and others covered it at the time on this page at A Closer Look On Syria (and more on the talk page). Somewhat over 200 civilians and non-combatants were killed, mainly on August 4, in the worst-yet accepted rebel massacre of civilians of the Alawi (Alawite) faith. That's of course the localized offshoot Shia Islam shared by President Assad, whose family hails from Qardaha, Latakia, just south of the area in question. 

The full details of the incident matter, but what matters more is how and why such a thing can happen – who carried it out, who supported it, what's been done about that, etc. That will be the main thrust of the Latakia massacres posts here, collected below. But for those who need it, below that list, the rest of this post is occupied with a starter or refresher on the horror of this incident.

* The "Moderate" Backdrop
* FSA-ISIS Teamwork in the Latakia Massacres?
** Rebel Death Records Correlation (sub-analysis)
* The Hostages Who, how, why, how many, and what happened then?
* History Repeating (forthcoming)

Introduction to the Events
Opposition groups proudly announced and praised the rebel military offensive called the battle of Aisha, mother of believers (Umm al-Momineen), a sectarian reference to early Islamic history, or besides a few other names, the “Operation to Liberate the Coast.” Fought by various mainly Islamist factions working in tandem, it ran from August 4 to August 18, ending in defeat and Syrian recapture of all towns. How it began was with a plan set before the 4th but only sprung then, just before the holy feast of Eid. Fresh recruits were brought in across the nearby Turkish border and assembled with local and regional fighters from at least 20 different but allied Islamist groups including Jabhat al-Nusra and a relatively new groups called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham as well as groups calling themselves part of a “Free Syrian Army.”

Early on that first day, the attackers set out from the rebel-held Sunni village of Salma (I think the name means "peaceful") and overran the Syrian army defenses in the area just to the south.  The army post in Durin was at least circumvented, the Shiekh Nabhan mountain post (also called Barouda tower) was totally neutralized, and then the small, undefended villages - populated by Alawi citizens - were "liberated." This info-graphic I made at the time may not be totally accurate but at least helps understand the scene.

About a dozen towns total were overrun, most of them on that same day. Surprised citizens who tried to run away were gunned down on the road (see inset photo by a proud Saudi rebel, details here). Others were killed inside their homes. These were not isolated minor abuses; during their occupation, especially on the first day, these villages witnessed incredible brutality. Jonathan Steele later reported for the Guardian:
Shadi, a 32-year-old officer in a local defence unit that is separate from the Syrian army, was lightly wounded during the government's counter-attack. "When we got into the village of Balouta I saw a baby's head hanging from a tree. There was a woman's body which had been sliced in half from head to toe and each half was hanging from separate apple trees. It made me feel I wanted to do something wild," he recalled. ... Ali, a member of the regular army, said he also saw the baby's head.
To many, such extremes might be hard to swallow, but the best evidence leaves such things all too plausible. Consider the report Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued in October after a field study in Latakia and independent research. Their detailed report  could serve as a main source, and I largely stopped researching when I saw how they had it fairly well covered. It's a rare case of a HRW report that both addressed a massacre rebels denied, and didn't even try to blame the Syrian government for it. They actually researched it and published a detailed report dedicated to blaming Islamist rebel factions for "War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity." It will be heavily cited from here on, and is available here:

"You can still see their blood" - Executions, indiscriminate shooting, and hostage taking by opposition forces in Latakia countryside. PDF, 113 pages. Researched and written by Lama Fakih, Human Rights Watch, October 11, 2013. Read or download page
(note: the endnotes don't seem to work, on my end anyway)

See also, HRW video on this investigation:

Soldiers, Men, People ... Just Semantics?
Opposition sources call the surrounding villages military posts, or claims each town had one, or roadblocks between, or all men were armed, or whatever. Human Rights Watch heard from “an opposition activist in Latakia who coordinates between and assists the armed opposition groups fighting there” who told them outright “We caught 150 women and 40 children, and killed all the men.” explaining “They were all carrying weapons.” (from report, see below). In some cases they cite specifics – soldiers killed, weapons seized. But they specify just one village for that - Barouda - probably meaning the tower 5-700 meters from there. HRW heard and found credible that “government forces were only based in three government positions outside the villages and that once these bases were overrun on August 4 and the soldiers had retreated there were no government forces or pro-government militias inside the villages on that day.” Considering the map above, it only makes sense that 2-3 bases should suffice for an area a few kilometers square.

HRW's researcher and author, Lama Fakih, saw credible evidence for at least 205 civilian/noncombatant fatalities, noting that's probably an incomplete tally. 190 of those had been identified. Compare that to early rebel boats: "We killed 200 (of Assad's men) on Sunday alone, and yesterday at least 40," one fighter in the area told Reuters. (Oweis) The actual word used was probably "Shabiha," which is more ambiguous and can mean just "Alawites, mostly men." An activist with the involved Ahrar al-Jabal Brigade said 175 were killed, Reuters reported, "describing them as soldiers and militiamen who were manning roadblocks linking the mountain villages." (same link)

However, pro-government sources and HRW seem to agree only about 30 soldiers were killed initially. Checking opposition records, the whole span of operation (Aug. 4-18) shows maybe 50 or so listed (probably incomplete but close) and that includes at least a few massacre victims who happened to be military/NDF (see here at ACLOS)

If only these or that 30-40 died at first, the 175-240 number rebels boasted about must have been or included the civilians of the villages. Those were mostly men; the records and accounts HRW's Fakih considered specify at least 18 children and 57 women killed, besides an implied 115+ non-combatant men (civilian or military but killed at home with their families instead of out in fighting, like six Shakuhi men from Beit Shakouhi ("House of Shakouhi") killed on August 4 and 6, which HRW missed). At least one other man HRW heard about had a gun and went down fighting, and others may well have, but apparently not the way rebels claimed.

175 may be the soldiers plus the 115+ adult men, militarized post-mortem as regime fighters, and rounded off. Maybe "roadblocks" means non-rebel villages/support base/safe haven for their opponents in the field, impediments to progress in the regime-change campaign. If so, that wasn't a lie in their minds, just a bit of semantics. Note also the difference in provided tallies; 240 vs. 175 is a difference of 65. That's close to the number of women and/or most of the women and children killed. That might be more semantics, disagreement over whether “Assad's men” have to be actual men or just Alawites. At right is the body of one of the 57+ women killed, this one while doing chores. Her body was left behind and scavenged by wild animals before seen by a news team from al-Mayadeen as they came in with liberating soldiers weeks later (see video here).

clearing of a mass grave in Sleibeh al-Hamboushiya
Most victims' bodies were discovered in scattered mass graves once order was restored later in the month. Some graves were rigged with explosives. Some bodies were charred. Most victims were simply shot but in several cases their throats were sliced - one young girl witnessed the rest of her family killed this way, HRW heard.  The heads were cut off of of some bound victims, as Fakih saw in photos.

Genocidal Intent
A graffiti tag I found in a video from  one of the villages (but lost the source for now) and had translated adds a bit here:
Main line:
ســاع اللاذقية
Messenger(s) (of? to?) Lattakia
A basic Google search suggests this is not the name of a group anyone has noted much. May not implicate anyone in particular. But the attached writing specifying the message is of interest. Lower left corner, no guesses yet. Upper right, scrawled-in (likely by someone else, before or after):
مصير كل علوي الذبح  
The fate of every Alawite is for slaughtering
(another reading was every body of Alawi /every Alawi body is for slaughtering - either is pretty consistent with all shapes, and makes some sense in context, but we're all leaning to the "fate" reading - might be bad grammar, with slaughter ذبح being the better form of the word.)
Message sent, and received. Grafitti HRW's Fakih saw boasted in silver paint “The heroes of Khirbet al-Jawz to the genocide of Alawites.” This is a Free Syrian Army Brigade, but apparently not controlled by the FSA central command, a problem addressed in the FSA-ISIS post. Disturbingly, however, the FSA-affiliated "moderate" and "legitimate" Syrian National Coalition had many of its members before and after the massacres urging genocidal and terrorist tactics as a necessity in winning their war. (post forthcoming)

The HRW report doesn't mention rape in the massacre (others do) but does note a credible report of "the corpses of six women, stripped naked, on the roof of a home at the beginning of al-Hamboushieh village."

Most inhabitants who fled haven't returned except to recover family members' bodies and close that chapter of their lives. As long as Salma remained out of government control, the villages were as unsafe as people had warned. It seems the terrorists wanted to deny Alawi their "safe havens" and in this case, they achieved their goal.

was moved to The Hostages

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