Armed factions working within the Homs Operations Room carried out an attack Thursday morning on the majority Alawite village of Al-Zarah, located between the northern Homs countryside and the southern Hama countryside. During the operation, which lasted about four hours, the armed factions were able to impose their control on the village and take a number of its residents prisoner.
This was the first time armed groups have attacked an Alawite village in the Homs countryside for over two years. Images appeared on social media showing fighters from the groups — which included the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq Homs, Ajnad Homs, and Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaa — beside corpses of civilians killed inside houses in the village.
The Homs countryside, an area where both Sunnis and Alawites live, has seen sectarian massacres carried out by regime forces, such as the infamous Houla massacre in May 2012, in which 65 children were killed.
Shortly after it was announced that the groups had taken control of Al-Zarah, regime forces bombed the village’s outskirts, and warplanes raided Burj Qaae, Tsneen, and Hirbnafsah, also stopping the expected delivery of aid to Houla.
The Homs Operations Room and the participating factions announced that the goal of the operation was “vengeance for the martyrs of the massacres carried out by Syrian warplanes and its Russian ally against civilians in Aleppo city, and pressuring the regime to implement demands of the negotiations in the northern Homs countryside to open the crossings and bring in foodstuffs and medical aid to the cities which have been under siege for years.” The blockaded northern Homs countryside includes the towns of Telbeesa, Rastan, Houla, Deir Fuul, and Al-Ghantou.
It is unclear how many regime forces and civilians were killed in Al-Zarah, nor how many prisoners were taken captive. Estimates indicate that the number of prisoners includes about 25 women and children, according to eyewitness accounts who said the detainees were moved by bus to the intersection of Ghajar village. This provoked a reaction from regime loyalists, who claimed the number of prisoners was in the hundreds, pointing to the regime’s inability to protect Alawite villages adjacent to besieged Sunni villages north of Homs city.
It is the first time that pictures have been published of fighters from Islamist factions, like the Nusra Front, with corpses of women killed during operations, confirmed by reports of the massacre carried out against civilians in the village. The regime has long repeated that the opposition targets civilians on a sectarian basis, which the opposition has consistently denied through the National Coalition, the revolutionary military councils and even extremist Islamist factions. A number of revolutionary activists rushed to condemn the operation on social media sites.
Regime forces have not adhered to the “cessation of hostile actions” or the local truces in the Homs countryside, and have consistently bombarded the villages of Teir Maala and Al-Dar al-Kabira with barrel bombs, leading to massacres. One official in the Homs Operations Room told al-Modon that the regime, as usual, has not abided by its part of any pledge. The latest of its violations was reimposing the siege on Waer, which pushed the district into a severe state of food shortage. There had been an agreement between the opposition and the regime in the Waer, completed under the supervision of the United Nations, to start the reconciliation process, or truce, and allow food deliveries to enter.
The northern countryside of Homs is under the control of Islamist militants, after fighters left the besieged city of Homs in May 2014. The grip of the Islamist factions on the northern countryside has been strengthened since that time, and the area has been subjected to massacres between the factions to eliminate the presence of the Islamic State group and its sleeper cells. ISIS forces are present in the eastern Homs countryside, while the Nusra Front enjoys broad control over the northern countryside, with its presence clearly evident in the Sharia courts and in all aspects of life.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.