ISIS threatens the Ismaili capital of Syria

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The Syrian village of al-Silmiya. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Marah Mashi

Published Thursday, October 30, 2014

The military operation in the northern and western countryside of Hama has almost achieved its goal, with the Syrian army recapturing most of the towns in the region. However, the war is still raging near al-Silmiya front in the eastern countryside, where the threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to terrorize local residents. People in Silmiya believe that the Syrian regime “which is taking upon itself to protect minorities” will not forget their city, the capital of the Ismaili minority in the region.

The people of al-Silmiya live in constant fear; “ISIS is at our doorstep,” they say.

Located at one of the most critical roads for both the army and the militants, al-Silmiya is part of Hama’s eastern countryside, halfway between Hama’s western countryside and Idlib. More importantly, the town lies halfway between Hama’s military airport and Khanasser in Aleppo’s countryside, which leads to the city of Aleppo.

The towns of Saan, Saboura, and Akareb located to the northeast of al-Silmiya constitute its defense line against smaller nomadic towns under ISIS control.

Although an army unit led by Colonel Shouheil al-Hassan was dispatched from Aleppo to the western countryside to recapture Rahba Khitab and the surroundings of Mahrada, locals here are still worried that the regime would balk at defending their town if it is invaded by ISIS. Nevertheless, the army’s control of the western countryside and the town of Mork in the north of Hama restored some hope to the people of Silmiya.

A local high ranking figure described al-Silmiya as a dual site for intellectuals and infidels in the midst of a conservative Islamic population “that shares the same affiliation.” But locals reject the use of the term “infidel” to describe the town known as “the birthplace of Cairo and the Fatimid dynasty” [the first Fatimid caliph, Ubaidullah al-Mahdi, was a al-Silmiya native]. They instead substitute “infidel” with poverty, hence intellect in this town is coupled with the poverty of its rebels who advocate the same ideas as those of late Syrian poet Mohammed al-Maghout, a town native.

At the onset of the “Syrian revolution,” al-Silmiya witnessed some unique demonstrations with protesters proudly drinking and raising a glass to the civil revolution. The number of demonstrators reached 4,000 at one point, but it all ended with the first bullet that transformed the protests into a conflict between Islamist fighters and the authorities, while opponents in al-Silmiya tried to distance themselves [from the conflict].

People here are proud that their protesters were the only ones who did not emerge from mosques. However, most residents acknowledge that they were not able to positively influence their surroundings for reasons related to intellectual and sectarian differences.

Bahaa, an opposition member in Silmiya, said “Silmiya was the third town to revolt after Daraa and Banyas; protesters at the beginning raised slogans calling for reform and for solidarity with Daraa and other slogans celebrating Syrian pride.”

ISIS at the doorstep

The specter of war is looming over the far eastern part of the town. In fact, al-Silmiya is separated from al-Shaer Mountain in the north of Homs by the villages of Berri, Okayrbat, and al-Soha, with the last two being important ISIS strongholds located to the east of Silmiya in Hama’s eastern countryside. The demarcation line also surrounds the town from the east to the north, including the villages of al-Mabouja and al-Saan – the last village of Silmiya before the Syrian Desert.

People of Saan engaged in direct battles against ISIS militants who control neighboring Okayrbat. They had to leave their town in a sad exodus which was not covered by the media.

Marwan, a town native who fought alongside the National Defense Forces, said local young men fought to recapture their village and transformed into a confrontation point against ISIS-controlled areas.

He said that the village of Berri is witnessing similar battles against local militants because it overlooks the farms of some villages under militants’ control such as Edima and Um Mil.

About a year ago, ISIS captured the village of Abu Hubaylat, located to the north east of Silmiya, a town that did not have a large population. Meanwhile, local militants control Taksis village in the south west of Silmiya, barricading themselves in the town’s rugged terrain linked to the Assi river basin.

Not far from the threat of militants in Homs’ northern countryside, al-Silmiya is only a few kilometers away from al-Zaafarana and Ezzeddin road which leads to Talbissa and Rastan, where the ISIS threat reemerges from the south.

Hence, al-Silmiya residents will find themselves surrounded from all sides in any upcoming war that would threaten the particularity of this town located in the heart of Syria.

Awaiting the imam

In this poverty stricken town, neglected by the government, people have resorted to the “Imam” Agha Khan. Here, it is normal to hear sentences such as “the Imam ordered us to distance ourselves from the conflict between the regime and Islamists,” or “the Imam will not leave us and he is working to fix our problems.”

Hani, another opposition member in the town, believes that Agha Khan, the leader of an Ismaili sect, has a certain influence on believers but civil and secular individuals do not care about “the orders of the Imam,” and these were the ones who led the protests in the town.

He explained that locals who do not advocate sectarianism are fearful following the fall of many villages in the town’s countryside, in addition to the threat of ISIS that worries everyone.

“The people of Silmiya were never sectarian fanatics, and the supporters of Agha Khan were never his spokespersons like they are today,” Hani said, adding “they interpret every sign of danger with great fear and they await some sort of a savior.”

The role of local associations

Like many other Syrian towns, al-Silmiya is coping with the loss of dozens of its young men who were martyred while fighting with the army or the National Defense Forces in battles at its eastern border.

The town has a population of about 150,000 residents, and in the summer it suffered a severe water crisis, after the water pipe running through the lawless al-Waer neighborhood in Homs was cut off.

The problem was temporarily solved in cooperation with Agha Khan association that provided interim alternatives which brought water back to households in Silmiya and parts of Hama.

However, visitors will be shocked to see widespread poverty and chaos in the town despite all the talk about development projects launched by Agha Khan association. Today, the association is focusing on relief efforts in cooperation with al-Birr charity organization and the Higher Shia Ismaili Council.

Ghaleb al-Mir Ghaleb, head of al-Adiyat Charity Organization, said the stature of Agha Khan is deeply rooted in the sect as a spiritual leader. During the crisis, he called upon his followers not to raise arms against the state.

Al-Mir said local associations are working together to help refugees and the poor in the town, and today they are seeking to give out $100 (16,000 Syrian Lira) cash aid to about 20,000 people in Silmiya. In addition, relief organizations are aiding refugees from Talbissa and Rastan who fled to the town since the beginning of the war, without showing off their assistance.

Today, peaceful protests are long gone, and people are left with distant memories of early protesters, some of whom met suspicious destinies. One protester from Akareb village was killed by Harasta rebels who wrote “traitor dog” on his body, accusing him of being an agent of the regime.

Of course, the name of this brave man who touched the hearts of Silmiya’s protesters was listed among the victims killed by the regime which was published by the Center of Documentation of Violations in Syria in 2012, without investigating the details surrounding his death.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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