In the Wake of the Jabla and Tartous Bombings

The explosions on Monday, May 23 killed up to 150 people in the cities of Jabla and Tartous, in an attack that surprised both the regime and opposition. For the last three years, the opposition has launched missile strikes against these coastal cities without causing the same level of damage, at most killing a few civilians and a times targeting the airport before Russia turned it into a military base.

The explosions in Jabla and Tartous in western Syria, 250 km from Damascus, were more devastating than any previous attack. Most of the victims were civilians, including university students. Of the 10 suicide bombers that the Islamic State (ISIS) identified, six were Sunnis from the coastal cities. Being originally from those cities, they knew that bombing the bus stops in the morning would create the most havoc because they are the busiest then.

Each party is trying to use the explosions to its benefit. ISIS is trying to attract the support of more Sunnis and conservatives. Prior to the coast bombings, al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesperson, released a recording saying that the group will launch its attacks “east and west,” meaning it will strike everywhere. On the other hand, just hours after the attacks, the Syrian regime accused Ahrar al-Sham of being solely responsible for the attacks. Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership issued an official statement denying any links to the attacks. The regime accused Ahrar al-Sham because it is a strong, prominent opposition group and an official member of the ongoing political negotiations, in hopes of having the United Nations label it as a terrorist group. Russia has also pushed the United Nations to label Ahrar al-Sham as a terrorist group, because UN-designated terrorist groups are exempt from the February 26 ceasefire, but thus far has not succeeded.

Adverse repercussions to the blasts are seen in the increasing sectarian tensions in the Syrian coastal cities. Fears are growing of an ethnic cleansing in Baniyas, Tartous, Jabla, and Latakia—the cities were Sunnis have lived for decades under the regime and Alawite sect’s tight security grip, long before the 2011 Syrian uprising. There were several attempts to ignite violence in these cities after the bombings, especially in Tartous, but Alawite youth managed to prevent anything major from breaking out. The real concern is that the security forces will not interfere to stop such acts, opening the door for retaliation and allowing armed Alawites to kill Sunnis under the pretext of protecting peoples and cities. Jabla is still under night curfew. Locally run neighborhood watch groups have spread in Tartous that deny access to downtown areas, run random searches, and have hit whoever they suspect of being a potential threat, such as women wearing the headscarf (because they are seen potential sympathizers with Islamists groups), as well as the elderly. The victims of such assaults are often from the internally displaced population.

Funerals were held for the victims, hours after the blasts, with sympathy even from the opposition. It is hard to access these cities. Security forces search people going into these areas. No closed vehicles are allowed into the bus stop where the blasts went off. There are accusations that the regime checkpoints were bribed. Many Alawites are demanding an investigation against the security officials in those cities, after ISIS declared that a serious security breach helped the suicide bombers reach sensitive and crowded locations.

The opposition Facebook page Huna Suriya min Jablat al-Adhamiya posted a story claiming that the regime and its loyalist militias are involved in the blasts. “People gathered at 4:00 PM the day after the blasts by the house of Wael Mahmoud al-Haja, one of those killed yesterday at the explosion site in Jabla. The casket arrived and his family insisted on opening the casket to see their dead. But it turned out that the casket did not have the body of their dead,” the page reports.

The group Harakat Ahrar al-Alawiyin (The Free Alawites Movement) posted a statement on Twitter accusing the Syrian regime of planning the attacks. The statement confirmed that some regime checkpoints withdrew their guards before the explosions to facilitate the entry of the suicide bombers. It went on to warn against a looming Alawite uprising because of the rising number of recent killings and due to the deteriorating living conditions and the collapse of the Syrian currency against the US dollar. 

The reference to an eminent uprising reflects the reality of the Alawites in the coastal suburbs. Over the last five years, the Syrian regime and allied militias recruited youth to fight, only for them to return to their towns in coffins. The Assad regime provided only free bus rides for the injured and a few bags of sugar and rice not exceeding 5 kilograms.  

Faisal al-Qassem, a prominent Syrian media personality on Al Jazeera, posted on his personal Facebook account the same view as the opposition Alawites. He accused the regime of being involved in the explosions, saying this was a means to force the Alwaites to support the regime. The regime overlooks violent acts against other groups, while suppressing any attempts demanding its ouster.

Numerous opposition activists confirm that not all residents in the regime areas are loyalists, but rather many have fled there seeking security for themselves and kids. With the lack of choices, there is no alternative to the regime areas, especially after the EU closed its borders for Syrian refugees.

Fears are growing of the repercussions of these blasts in other key cities, such as Baniyas, where regime-aligned militias committed brutal massacres against locals in 2013. The regime, meanwhile, tries to benefit from these incidents to promote itself as a protector against and victim of fundamentalist groups.

Saleem al-Omar is a freelance journalist who has written for Al-Jazeera, Alquds Alarabi Newspaper, Arabi 21, and Syria Deeply.

Image: Photo: A Syrian Army soldier walks behind a police line near a damaged vehicle after explosions hit a bus station in the Syrian city of Jableh. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki