What Really Happened in Tal Kalakh?

Lebanese army soldiers patrol in their vehicle in the neighbourhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, during clashes on 4 December 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad

Published Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The story behind the group of young Lebanese men ambushed by the Syrian army in a western Syrian town near Tal Kalakh is still unfolding. They were reportedly on their way to join the rebels, having been summoned by a recently-released Fatah al-Islam leader running an “emirate” near Homs. The men’s families, many of whom reside in north Lebanon, are handling the news in different ways.

There continue to be conflicting accounts of last week’s incident, in which a number of young Lebanese men were killed near Tal Kalakh, Syria. Reports contrast in their details – the size of the group involved, how many were killed, injured, or captured by the Syrian army – not least what actually happened.

The northern city of Tripoli has been in an unprecedented state of shock, confusion, and anxiety since news of the incident broke on 30 November 2012. It was the first announcement since the start of the crisis in Syria that young men from the city had been sent as a group to fight alongside the Syrian opposition, only for many of them to perish in a Syrian army ambush.

While the group was reported to include between 17 and 44 men, sources told Al-Akhbar there were only 15, all of them Salafis “by affiliation and conviction.” Sources said they were heading for Tal Kalakh only to be ambushed in the village of Tal Tisreen after crossing into Syrian territory.

Initial reports spoke of 17 dead, then 22, but the number was later put at four. Meanwhile, a Syrian soldier said everyone in the group was killed in the ambush. Syrian state TV then reported that 21 were either dead or injured, as it screened footage of the bodies on Sunday.

Al-Akhbar was told by informed Islamist sources that the men went to Syria in response to an appeal by Kh. M., a leader of the Fatah al-Islam group who was recently released from jail. He later went to Syria to fight with the opposition and established a quasi “Islamic emirate” near Homs, Syria.

“People close to Kh. M. started organizing groups to send to Syria in response to his call for jihad. They had already sent a few individuals before sending this large number of young men en masse,” a source said.

Security sources confirmed that the alleged individuals behind the recruiting have disappeared from public view since news of the incident broke.

The Islamist sources said the men were all between the ages of 19 and 26, and it was still unclear how they ended up in an ambush, whether they had been betrayed, and by whom.

“The fact that they set off openly after performing morning prayers shows they didn’t know what they were doing and lacked a lot of combat experience. That makes it likely that they were lured, and went off without knowing their real destination or understanding the dangers awaiting them there,” the sources added, while conceding that “the only person who really knows is whoever sent them to Syria.”

Of rumors that the group had been dispatched by Salafi sheikh Hussam al-Sabbagh, a leading jihadi figure in Tripoli, the sources said these were completely unfounded. Indeed, as soon as word of the incident spread, eyewitnesses reported that Sabbagh convened a meeting of his followers in the Bab al-Tabbaneh district, and told them it was not in their interest to cause trouble with the army, nor with the rival Jabal Mohsen district, as “that is not our battle.” Some of those who met Sabbagh also quoted him as saying that “Syria does not need combatants to go there to fight the regime.”

The parents of the men were stunned by the news, as they had been unaware of their sons’ plans. Some had nervous breakdowns, while others began putting up posters of the men whose deaths had been announced, only to take them down after receiving text messages from Syrian phone numbers informing them that the individuals concerned were alive and in safe areas with the Free Syrian Army.

After Syria TV broadcasted images of the dead men along with their names, the families were left grieving. Another group of family members prepared to receive well-wishers to congratulate them on the martyrdom of their sons in the jihad against the Syrian regime.

Parents have also been demanding that the Lebanese state intercede with the Syrian authorities to ascertain the fate of the men, and bring home the bodies of those killed for burial.

The reaction of the father of Khodor Alameddin – whose body was shown on the Syria TV broadcast – was striking. He blamed his son’s death on “the deceivers” who had sent him to Syria without his family’s knowledge, and called for action to be taken against the groups responsible for such “brainwashing.”

“If my son had wanted to go to fight against the Israelis, I would have sent him myself, but for them to take him to participate in a strife against our countries, that is not permissible,” he said.

There were two distinct reactions within the Future Movement. One was to call for fighters not to be sent to Syria. The other was to praise the young men’s actions and suggest their families should be proud of them.

MP Mohammad Tabbara, for his part, blamed Hezbollah for the deaths. The “party of weapons,” he maintained, had “provoked” them to action by “fighting alongside the regime.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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