With the Syrian Army at Adra al-Omalia, northeast of Damascus
In the early hours of Thursday, 9/25/2014, after five days of fierce firefights with advancing Syrian troops, approximately 1,000 Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa al-Islam (Army of Islam) jihadists quickly assembled their hostages from the basements of more than forty buildings in the industrial town of Adra al-Omalia.
The town—you could almost think of it more as a neighborhood—is located about 12 miles northeast of Damascus. Those who had been taken hostage, initially approximately 500 people in all, were in the main government employees, along with Shia, Christian, Kurdish, Ismaili, and Druze residents. As the Syrian Arab Army closed in last week, the overwhelmed jihadists marched their captives into trenches and underground tunnels, disappearing with them. No one—besides their abductors—knows exactly how many of the original 500 people are still alive, but military sources believe at least some of the kidnapped families were moved in the direction of the town of Douma, which has been the opposition’s strategic base since the start of the Syrian crisis in March, 2011. Douma is also where some of the most important rebel fortifications are situated and fighting continues there.
At any rate, last week’s battle for Adra al-Omalia was a significant turning point. The town is now liberated but the story of what took place here over the past 291 days is presently emerging, and it is a horrifying one.
With a pre-massacre population of over 100,000, Adra housed 600 manufacturing plants and grain silos. It was a key area. In May of 2013, Ziad Badour, Director of Adra Industrial City, told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), that creative responses to U.S. unilateral economic attacks against Syria had given rise to more than 48,000 job opportunities in the region. He said Adra had received workers from different parts of the country, and had also managed to absorb internal refugees—from Douma, Yabroud and Nabek, as well as from the farms of Ghouta. With inexpensive yet high-quality housing, the quiet town, with its well-maintained streets and sidewalks, became a very attractive destination for workers and middle class residents from Damascus.
Starting on September 21, 2014 government forces advanced upon the town in a three-directional pincer operation from the north, west, and south, and theoretically should have been able to cut off al-Nusra’s western escape route to Douma. But the Army admits now that the extent of Adra’s underground tunnels was previously unknown to them. Some of these trenches and tunnels appeared to be at least one-half mile in length and approximately 14 feet deep by 10 feet wide. One trench the army showed to visitors is connected at the end with a tunnel approximately ¾ mile long. It was probably predictable that rebels would attempt an escape to Douma, still under Islamist control, but no one expected it to happen as quickly as it did. As we toured the area, some soldiers involved in the fight, as well as the Army’s public information officer, “Talal,” a friendly and conscientious Syrian patriot, expressed surprise to this observer over the unpredicted and fast exist by al-Nusra.
The tunnels constructed by the group and its disparate gathering of Islamists from outside Syria are not quite up to the standards of Hezbollah’s south Lebanon and Bekaa tunnels, a half-dozen of which this observer has visited. Nor, apparently, are they up to the standards of the Hamas tunnels which so vexed and aggrieved the Zionist aggressors this past summer. Nonetheless, they are equipped with phone wires, water, bathrooms and electricity as well as areas for cooking, dormitories and IED and bomb-making shops. And in the trenches, which are quite large, one finds transport vehicles such as trucks and minibuses, as well as artillery launchers and 50mm guns mounted on pick-ups. From inside one of the tunnels, the Army confiscated a large cache of weapons, ammunition, mobile devices, and chemicals to make chlorine gas. A Syrian lady friend observed a woman’s bag in the back of one the trucks, perhaps belonging to one of the hostages who were forced to leave in hurry or perhaps it belonged to a woman linked to one of the foreign fighters who tend to acquire a jihadi or slave wife (s) and family. In any case, scattered diapers suggest some babies were born to the Islamists during their occupation of Adra as well.
Not all the tunnels were complete; in fact some were still under construction, and inside one of them more than 50 five-gallon buckets were found. The buckets were all filled with chipped rock—as if the jihadists’ tunnel-digging work had been abruptly interrupted. One Islamist sympathizer explained to this observer that al-Nusra and Da’ish (IS) are the best at building “Iranian model” tunnels because, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas Islamists, who Tehran trains, Syrian Islamists have to adapt their construction techniques. This means building tunnels and trenches very quickly and through solid rock—a much more difficult process than simply hollowing out packed sand, the predominant medium at certain tunnel locations in Gaza and some part of Lebanon.
The occupation of Adra al-Omalia lasted nearly ten months, commencing in December 11, 2013, when fighters from al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, another jihadi group, captured the main employee residential complex, using an old sewer to outflank government forces. Many apartments in the area were quickly burned or gutted with grenades or other explosive devices, the reasoning being that jihadists believed the residents loyal to the government. What quickly took place was a massacre, and many eyewitness accounts of the events are now surfacing. Mazhar Ibraheem is a doctor originally from the Tartus countryside who has lived in Adra for the past several years and who recalls what happened as the militants infiltrated into the city last December:
“Since the earlier hours of that day, I had heard the crackle of gunfire in front of my house that is in front of a bakery. Then I realized that it was fire being exchanged between the militants and the bakery guards. I escaped with my wife and my daughter, Kristin, to a nearby shelter, where dozens of residents were hiding. Then the armed men found the shelter; they started torturing, killing and investigating, and demanding to know who supports the regime and who works with the government. The militants cut off the hands of the government workers in order to prevent the resumption of their work and to behead some of them and to torture their bodies in front of the children’s eyes.”
The doctor also described the horrific scenes that he, with his family, saw of decomposed, tortured and beheaded bodies, which were thrown all over the streets. His wife said that, “The armed men were non-Syrians. We lived terrible days, before we could escape with only the clothes that we wore.”
“We woke up at dawn with the sound of bullets… we saw men carrying black flags of Jaish al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra. Some of them were singing ‘Alawites we have come to cut off your heads’ song, and this was the song they first sang at the start of the war in Idlib.”
Another eyewitness described the grisly events of later that day:
“The rebels began to attack the government centers, and attacked the police station—where all the policemen were killed after only a brief clash because of the large numbers of the attackers. They (the attackers) then headed to the checkpoint located on the edge of the city before moving to the clinic, where they slaughtered one from the medical staff and put his head in the popular market. They then dragged his body in front of townspeople who gathered to see what was happening. Bakery workers who resisted their machinery being taken away were roasted in their own oven. Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic Front fighters went from house to house with a list of names and none of those taken away then has been seen since.”
When the Syrian army would try to enter Adra the Jihadists would throw women and children from the 20,000 people it captured off the top floors in front of the army.
This observer’s friend, the award winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, published an account of the sheer terror experienced by one Adra family—the Mhala family. The story appeared in the UK Independent on February 9, 2014 and also in Counterpunch. Mr. Nusair Mahla, a government employee, described to Cockburn the last minutes of the life of his sister, Maysoun Mhala, who was an engineer who used to help families who were displaced by the fighting. It was on December 11, 2013 that the family decided to blow themselves up in their home, including their children Karim and Bishr, as al-Nusra Islamists broke through the door of their dwelling. Earlier that day, Nusair was able to telephone his sister Maysoun, who already at that time could see the militants in the street. “They look so terrifying, and I am afraid,” she told him. “I was looking out the window and I saw the terrorists kill one of the NDF [pro-government National Defense Force militia] with a big knife.” Maysoun went on to explain to Nusair that she and her husband, Nizar, planned to try and wedge the door of their apartment shut, but that if this failed and the jihadis broke in, then the whole family had taken a momentous resolution: rather than face torture and inevitable death at the hands of al-Nusra, they would die as a family by detonating grenades. As the Islamists kicked in the door, the family detonated the explosives, killing the father and two sons and blowing the leg off Maysoun. The rebels then dragged Maysoun’s body behind a car around the neighborhood.
On 9/25/14, the day this observer spent in Adra, Nusair, the brother of Maysouon Mhala explained that the four bodies of his family members were found in the apartment the day before and had been “buried decently”. Stories from Adra residents who survived suggest that the same people who helped the Hasan family, also helped al Nusra to get inside their building. In times of danger some citizens seek to survive via dual and desperately shifting loyalties.
Cockburn isn’t the only one who has reported on the Mhala family’s tragic destruction. Their story was also alluded to by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, in a speech at the opening of the Geneva II Conference on January 22, 2014 in Montreux, Switzerland:
“Under the name of a ‘revolution,’ we see a father that is killing himself and his family so he would save them from strangers entering his house. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, and most of you here are fathers of children. Imagine the feeling of a father when he has to kill his own family with his own hand to protect them from monsters that take the form of people and pretend that they are fighting for freedom. This is what happened in Adra. Adra—I think nobody of you have heard of it. Strangers came in. They killed and burnt people. You have not heard anything about it, but probably you have heard about other places where the same thing happened as happened in Adra, and they have accused the state and the Syrian Army. However, when no one could believe this lie any more, they stopped saying anything about it. This is what is being done by states who are the first attackers on Syria after they put aside others who were trying to take the leadership of the country through influence and money, this by using the horrible Wahhabi thought that is being spread in Syria. From this rostrum I tell you, you know, as I know, that it will not stop in Syria.”
A video of Muallem’s full speech is available here. The section on what took place in Adra begins at about 7:24. At about 22:19, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attempts to cut the Syrian foreign minister off, saying he has exceeded his time limit. Muallem’s speech was later denounced by the State Department’s Jen Psaki as “inflammatory.”
Let Ban Ki-moon and Psaki come to Adra.
Visitors arriving in Adra now see widespread damage to buildings from the warring parties. Army units will take the next few weeks to comb the city and remove explosive devices and car bombs, often found planted in parks and squares and at entrances to buildings.
As this observer was meandering along some streets within the just-liberated area, he stumbled, almost literally, upon the remains of a dozen fighters along the side of a destroyed truck. He reported the shocking discovery to some soldiers, standing on their tanks nearby, who then called an officer over. The bodies appeared to have been in the same spot for many months, maybe soldiers lined up and machine gunned. Their skin was baked dry, leathery, like what one sees in photos of mummies. Someone had covered them a long time ago with blankets or sheets that were now caked with thick dust and oil soaked. All wore military uniforms and a few had rings on their fingers and their hair appeared baked and brittle–maybe by months in the hot sun, one soldier speculated.
The site was more than a little numbing, but due to the priority of Army engineers in searching for booby traps—and due to the fact that the bodies themselves could be booby-trapped—the corpses could not be removed immediately. Later on that same day, however, as it began getting dark and I and my friend were preparing to return to Damascus, I made a point to check the area again, this time relieved to see two ambulances parked nearby—and that the bodies had finally been removed.
In taking Adra al-Omalia and expelling the armed militants from it, the Syrian Army has made a significant gain. The government now controls International Highway 5, which connects to Jordan in the south, runs north up through Damascus to Aleppo and Turkey.
It remains to be seen how soon the terrorized residents can return to their homes and begin rebuilding their lives.
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).