A medieval fortress overlooks the small predominantly Sunni Muslim town of Madiq Castle in Hama, Syria, situated on the Orontes River and along the fertile al-Ghab plain, under opposition control today. To the south, there lies Suqaylabiya, a predominantly Christian town under regime control. Alawis live in both locations, though mostly in regime-controlled areas. When war came to this part of Hama, clashes between regime and opposition forces ended in a truce that has largely held until today. Amid dramatic offensives in Eastern Ghouta and Afrin, the Russians issued a threat to 13 villages in the area, including Madiq Castle, demanding that residents accept their entry into the region—or else. This threat against civilians demonstrates a heightened level of complicity with the Assad regime in its attacks on noncombatants in Syria, one that should warrant an immediate response from those who wish to protect the most vulnerable in Syria.
While the regime’s National Defense Forces and infamous Fourth Division still occasionally shell and snipe the town of Madiq Castle, clashes have only occurred infrequently over the past two years. Social bonds that existed before the war resisted the Syrian regime’s sectarian rhetoric as the sole protectors of minorities. The head of the Majlis al-Shura in Madiq Castle town said, “We are brothers. The people of Suqayalbiya are like our family.” Priests will often intervene to assuage tensions and mediate between disputing parties. “I am married to an Alawi woman. We have three children together and we were married seven months after the events [protests] began. I have a great relationship with my in-laws. Whatever sectarian people say, that is not how we are,” says the head of the Local Council in the opposition-held town of Madiq Castle. His wife chimes in, “They don’t discriminate against me at all. On the contrary, they are even nicer and more respectful of me because they know I’m from a different sect. And it’s not just us. There is harmony between the people and everyone treats each other with decency.”
Fruit and vegetable traders pass through the Madiq Castle – Suqaylabiya crossing, as do some students and government employees. The crossing increased in importance when the regime, in coordination with the UN, used it to bring forcibly displaced persons from the south to Idlib province. While trade in the area decreased due to the opening of Morek crossing on the M5 highway to the east, the level of extortion and abuse at checkpoints in regime-held Suqayalbiyeh also decreased in recent months.
Given the relative peace, it came as a surprise to area residents when Russian interlocutors verbally threatened 13 villages in opposition-controlled Hama—including Madiq Castle, Kafr Nabouda, Mount Shahshbo, Bab al-Taqa, and others. The Russians demanded entry into the region and would do so peacefully or by force, depending on the response of the people. They met with the Communications Committee (known as the Reconciliation Committee by the regime), headed by a well-known former mukhtar (the official local leader) of the area to issue the ultimatum on February 24. The end of the week is the deadline for the people of Madiq Castle and surrounding opposition-held areas to respond.
Within days, the news elicited a response from armed rebel groups and civilians alike. Immediately Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Nasr stated that they would not allow Russian or regime forces to enter the area. Shura and Local Councils soon after followed up with statements concurring with the armed factions, adding that they hope to remain under Turkish supervision (as stipulated in the de-escalation zones agreement of May 2017). They remind their audience that many of the hospitals have been destroyed and the injured would not have anywhere to go if there was an incursion. It is unclear to people on the ground whether the United Nations or any third parties are aware of these recent threats or are taking steps to mitigate tensions.
On February 14, the regime and the Russians delivered a similar threat to the remaining opposition-held areas in Northern Homs. The deadline came and went with some shelling and clashes but no mobilization of ground forces. It is unclear if this threat will ring equally hollow, but its mere issuance could displace more civilians while the media and international organizations focus on the ongoing, horrifying developments in Eastern Ghouta and Afrin. Terrified of a Russian and regime incursion, civilians have already begun fleeing north, many of them already displaced from other parts of the country. Even if the regime does not invade the area, many civilians expect the deadline to bring shelling and air strikes. Instilling fear in the civilian population has, after all, been the modus operandi of the regime since protests began in 2011.
The fact that Russia, a signatory to the UN Resolution 2401 that calls for a 30-day ceasefire, both assists the Assad regime in its bombardment of Eastern Ghouta and simultaneously issues threats on its behalf to civilians demands an immediate response from the international community before these areas become “hell on earth.” The residents of Madiq Castle and the surrounding towns are a reminder of the strong bonds that still link Syrians together. They are also a reminder of what could be lost.
Natasha Hall is an independent analyst specializing in Syria and refugee and humanitarian crises.