The Syrian regime has reportedly perpetrated another episode of sectarian cleansing. Yesterday, the army and paramilitary gangs loyal to president Bashar al-Assad killed more than 200 people in the Sunni village of Tremseh, in Hama province.
Syrian opposition activist Ammar Abdulhamid describes the operation:
Pro-Assad militias laid siege to the town at 5 am local time, cutting off power and communications. Then intensive shelling took place for two hours followed by a more sporadic bombardment as pro-Assad militias reportedly stormed certain neighborhoods, burned down houses after killing their occupants, then pursued those who escaped into the nearby fields where some were executed on the spot. Entire families were slaughtered. Many of the dead families were already refugees from the nearby village of Khneizeer. Local resistance was poorly armed and was unable to push back the invading pro-Assad militias. The massacre seems sectarian in character.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, explained in an email to me how this latest massacre “follows the same pattern set by the regime in the previous sectarian mass killings in Houla and Taldou near Homs, and in al-Qubayr, also in the Hama governorate, south of Tremseh.”
The pattern involves attacks launched from neighboring Alawite villages. In the case of Tremseh, as with al-Qubayr before it, the Alawite town of al-Safsafiyeh seems to have been the launching ground. Al-Safsafiyeh is an outlying Alawite village in the Ghab Plain, which separates the Alawite coastal mountains from the Sunni Syrian interior. At the easternmost edge of this sectarian frontier is where scattered Alawite villages lie uncomfortably near Sunni ones.
This sectarian geography corresponds with a strategic component as well. With these sectarian attacks east in the Ghab Plain, the regime seeks to create buffer areas around the Alawite region, disrupt enemy lines between the Hama and Idlib countrysides (and the Damascus-Aleppo highway), and protect key roads and access points leading into the coastal Alawite mountains. This explains its previous operations in al-Haffeh, which sits on the road connecting the main coastal city of Lattakia to the Ghab Plain, and its attack on Taldou, which controls the road running west to Baniyas on the coast through Masyaf and Qadmous.
As Badran noted in an earlier post, “Strategic Geography and the End of Assad,” July 6), this strategic geography has a precedent in the Crusader period through a network of fortifications that straddle the coastal region. “These fortifications are situated at strategic points,” Badran writes in an email.
Either to protect access points or to ensure territorial continuity and secure communication and logistical lines. And these points are relevant today in the context of the Syrian conflict, with the Alawite heartland occupying the geographic space previously occupied by the Crusader states.
Hence the regime's campaigns in Tal Kalakh and the Crac des Chevaliers in the Homs gap, and al-Haffeh, situated near the Saone (Saladdin) castle. On the other hand, fortifications belonging to the various Muslim forces fighting the Crusaders, such as al-Madiq (in the Ghab Plain) and Shayzar (right east of Tremseh) mark the opposing frontier fortifications of the Syrian interior in the Ghab Plain.
Badran’s historical research makes a powerful case that these “fortifications are a testament to the enduring relevance of Syria's strategic geography in the ongoing conflict.”