This report deals with the present situation in the Ismaili majority town of Salamiyah() four years on from the outbreak of the crisis currently raging in Syria. It is an attempt to understand the changes that have beset the town, the struggles that are taking place in it and the dangers it faces. The paper focuses on how worn out the town has become, what civil peace remains in a community at risk of exploding, and the relationship between that community and its surroundings. It draws on previous reports by the Democratic Republic Studies Center (DRSC), which provide insights in to the effect the Syrian conflict has had on society. Because of the studied area’s particular geographic, demographic and sectarian character, the questions raised in the paper have provided new insights into this issue.
Salamiyah is located in central Syria and along with most of the surrounding countryside it is completely under the control of regime forces and semi-regular pro-regime forces. The front in the area has remained quiet generally speaking, and especially over the past two years, despite the close proximity of armed opposition groups. In the past, these groups were Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades but more recently they have been supplanted by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is now the only military force in the areas that neighbor Salamiyah to the west. The Islamic State (ISIS) also controls several nearby villages and some of its positions are no more than 10 kilometers away from the town.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, two phenomena have come to define the essential features of unrest in the town:
Firstly, a large number of locals took part in anti-regime demonstrations from an early stage. This contradicted regime rhetoric: a minority group had rebelled against it, causing its claim that it was a ‘protector of minorities’ to fall apart.
Secondly, residents of the town have been kidnapped and attacked by armed regime supporters; that is, the people in control of the National Defense Forces (NDF) and the network connected to those people.
With the decline of the first phenomenon, the second one has become ever more deeply entrenched and the people responsible for it have openly established a war economy.
The second phenomenon has now become a crisis. For example, at a certain point the town was seeing between one and three kidnappings or assaults per week. For this reason, our paper focuses on researching the development of this ‘mafia’ network over the past two years and the resulting deadlock, which has manifested itself for all to see in recent months.
The paper comes at the same time as similar events elsewhere in the country. At a demonstration in the city of Latakia, Alawites called for the execution of Suleiman al-Assad(), a son of the ruling family and the leader of one of the ‘mafias’ protecting the Syrian regime. Shortly after the demonstration their demands were circumvented and Suleiman al-Assad was released. Notwithstanding all the implications() of this demonstration at this time and what its being circumvented indicates with regard to the regime’s present state, its relationship with the ‘mafias’ that help protect it and its relationship with what is widely perceived to be ‘the part of the public that clings to it most,’ the situation in the town of Salamiyah, through what distinguishes it from the situation in Latakia, adds new perspectives. Consequently, the paper contributes to a deeper understanding of the regime’s complex relationship with the ‘minorities’ it claims to protect and the strategies connected to this. It also sheds new light how the various sections of Salamiyah’s community have reacted to the conduct of a network of armed individuals who belong to the NDF and analyses the strategy of the NDF itself, which we have concluded has made considerable headway in the process towards becoming a ‘mafia.’