When in the 1960s the great Syrian poet Mohammed al-Maghout was arrested for the first time on charges of belonging to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, his real crime was poverty. The local Syrian Social Nationalist Party office in the city of Salamiyeh was the only place that had a fireplace during those cold winter months, and it was in order to be able to feel the warmth rather than to practice politics that Maghout joined the party. Maghout – like most intellectuals and writers in Syria – was destined to live out a large part of his life in jail or in exile.
This article is not about Maghout, about whom a lot has been written, but a city that gave birth to him: the city of poverty, infidelity and thought (a-faqr wa al-kufr wa al-fikr as locals call it) – Salamiyeh.
During its history, Salamiyeh has long suffered from marginalization and government neglect and perhaps the main reason for this was the inability of the dictatorial governments that came to rule Syria to subdue a population prone to rebellion. This made it one of the poorest cities in Syria but at the same time it made its inhabitants known throughout Syria as a people who paid most attention to education, culture and politics.
The famous 2000-year-old castle in Salamiyeh
Over the decades the city has provided Syria with a considerable number of writers and intellectuals in addition to leading lights of the Ba'th Party who were quickly snuffed out when Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. The city is home to a sizeable Isma'ili population along with other minorities and is known as the gateway to the desert.
Salamiyeh has been politically active for decades, but since the beginning of the current uprising it has played a special role. Its demonstrations led by secular parties were critical in exposing the regime's accusations of the revolution as being driven by Salafist elements or as a foreign conspiracy. Many of Salamiyeh's sons joined the Free Syrian Army, and some others established a battalion going by the name of 'Desert Shield". With the intensification of the armed conflict in the nearby cities of Hama and Homs, Salamiyeh has provided sanctuary and refuge to over two hundred thousand displaced people. This is no small number given the fact that the population of Salamiyeh itself is no more than one hundred and fifty thousand – offering a great example of what ‘national solidarity’ really means.
The destroyed Salamiyeh security headquarter
On January 21, 2013, the largest bombing of its kind shook the centre of Salamiyeh, leaving more than 50 people dead and dozens wounded. The explosion emanated from a car bomb targeting the local security headquarters, which housed a number of Shabiha, but the bombing took its toll on civilians – most of whom were women and children. The opposition was quick to accuse the regime of masterminding the bombing in order to incite sectarian strife and further divide an already splintered opposition, but a statement issued by Jubhat al-Nusra (representative of al Qaeda in Syria) confirmed that it was they who were in fact responsible for the bombing. And while we cannot yet confirm the statement's authenticity and the validity of its content, there have been no claims to the contrary.
According to the statement released by Jubhat al-Nusra, the target was the Shabiha stationed at the site of the bombing and the adjacent headquarters of the Ba'th Party. In fact, the biggest casualties were civilians and the nearby National Hospital which has permanently closed because of the attack. Interestingly, the attack goes against the grain of previous Jubhat al-Nusra attacks; videos posted on YouTube show Jubhat al-Nusra fighters actually pulling out of suicide operations because of the nearby presence of civilians.
In a series of suicide bombings seen in Syria, this bombing was the first that targeted areas where minorities have been opposed to al-Assad's regime. The Salamiyeh coordinating committee for the revolution condemned Jubhat al-Nusra for its suicide bombing. This is the first time that a member of the coordination committee - the political representative of the revolutionaries on the ground - has come out and openly condemned Jubhat al-Nusra rather than placing the blame squarely on the regime.
In all previous bombings, despite the statements of Jubhat al-Nusra claiming responsibility, the committees as well as many opposition actors sitting abroad have been quick to accuse the regime. With little apparent concern for the future, these actors (the National Council and the National Coalition) have blinded themselves to the truth in order to gain political support – which has yet to arrive. This has provided Jubhat al-Nusra with a degree of political legitimacy so that it has become one of the strongest and most effective armed groups on the ground.
What then has changed today? Why have former allies been quick to put Jubhat al-Nusra in the dock?
Minorities alongside lots of moderate and conservative Sunnis in the coordinating committees used to turn a blind eye to the violent actions of Jubhat al-Nusra. However, their patience has run out and they can no longer close their eyes for the sake of keeping up the appearances of a unified front. This has revealed new cleavages between the committees themselves regarding their position towards Jubhat al-Nusra, so that we have now started to see committees in support of Jihadi groups emerging alongside anti-Jihadi Committees.
Till now, this fissure hasn't taken on a visible sectarian face, and we can still find people from minorities supporting Jubhat al-Nusra's " heroic exploits". However, the explosion in Salamiyeh has created growing fears among supporters of the armed opposition that anti-regime explosions may be unleashed against minority groups. This has presented the regime with a gilt-edged opportunity. The regime has already shown that it is a dab hand at playing the sectarian card. Instead of nullifying the regime's ability to do so, the so-called 'leadership' of the opposition have been busy building their personal glory. Syria has lots of politicians but no politics, and lots of clerics but no religion. As Mohammed al-Maghout once wrote:
"Everyone agreed to the oneness of God, and to the plurality of the country"
A thousand thanks to Tahir Zaman for editing this article