Shell-Shocked Syrian Town Freed After Savage Massacre
by FRANKLIN LAMB
With the Syrian Army at Adra al-Omalia, northeast of Damascus
In the early hours of Thursday, 9/25/2014, after five days of fierce firefights with advancing Syrian troops, approximately 1,000 Jabhat al-Nusra and Liwa al-Islam (Army of Islam) jihadists quickly assembled their hostages from the basements of more than forty buildings in the industrial town of Adra al-Omalia.
The town--you could almost think of it more as a neighborhood--is located about 12 miles northeast of Damascus. Those who had been taken hostage, initially approximately 500 people in all, were in the main government employees, along with Shia, Christian, Kurdish, Ismaili, and Druze residents. As the Syrian Arab Army closed in last week, the overwhelmed jihadists marched their captives into trenches and underground tunnels, disappearing with them. No one--besides their abductors--knows exactly how many of the original 500 people are still alive, but military sources believe at least some of the kidnapped families were moved in the direction of the town of Douma, which has been the opposition's strategic base since the start of the Syrian crisis in March, 2011. Douma is also where some of the most important rebel fortifications are situated and fighting continues there.
At any rate, last week's battle for Adra al-Omalia was a significant turning point. The town is now liberated but the story of what took place here over the past 291 days is presently emerging, and it is a horrifying one.
With a pre-massacre population of over 100,000, Adra housed 600 manufacturing plants and grain silos. It was a key area. In May of 2013, Ziad Badour, Director of Adra Industrial City, told the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), that creative responses to U.S. unilateral economic attacks against Syria had given rise to more than 48,000 job opportunities in the region. He said Adra had received workers from different parts of the country, and had also managed to absorb internal refugees--from Douma, Yabroud and Nabek, as well as from the farms of Ghouta. With inexpensive yet high-quality housing, the quiet town, with its well-maintained streets and sidewalks, became a very attractive destination for workers and middle class residents from Damascus.
Starting on September 21, 2014 government forces advanced upon the town in a three-directional pincer operation from the north, west, and south, and theoretically should have been able to cut off al-Nusra's western escape route to Douma. But the Army admits now that the extent of Adra's underground tunnels was previously unknown to them. Some of these trenches and tunnels appeared to be at least one-half mile in length and approximately 14 feet deep by 10 feet wide. One trench the army showed to visitors is connected at the end with a tunnel approximately mile long. It was probably predictable that rebels would attempt an escape to Douma, still under Islamist control, but no one expected it to happen as quickly as it did. As we toured the area, some soldiers involved in the fight, as well as the Army's public information officer, "Talal," a friendly and conscientious Syrian patriot, expressed surprise to this observer over the unpredicted and fast exist by al-Nusra.
The tunnels constructed by the group and its disparate gathering of Islamists from outside Syria are not quite up to the standards of Hezbollah's south Lebanon and Bekaa tunnels, a half-dozen of which this observer has visited. Nor, apparently, are they up to the standards of the Hamas tunnels which so vexed and aggrieved the Zionist aggressors this past summer. Nonetheless, they are equipped with phone wires, water, bathrooms and electricity as well as areas for cooking, dormitories and IED and bomb-making shops. And in the trenches, which are quite large, one finds transport vehicles such as trucks and minibuses, as well as artillery launchers and 50mm guns mounted on pick-ups. From inside one of the tunnels, the Army confiscated a large cache of weapons, ammunition, mobile devices, and chemicals to make chlorine gas. A Syrian lady friend observed a woman's bag in the back of one the trucks, perhaps belonging to one of the hostages who were forced to leave in hurry or perhaps it belonged to a woman linked to one of the foreign fighters who tend to acquire a jihadi or slave wife (s) and family. In any case, scattered diapers suggest some babies were born to the Islamists during their occupation of Adra as well.
Not all the tunnels were complete; in fact some were still under construction, and inside one of them more than 50 five-gallon buckets were found. The buckets were all filled with chipped rock--as if the jihadists' tunnel-digging work had been abruptly interrupted. One Islamist sympathizer explained to this observer that al-Nusra and Da'ish (IS) are the best at building "Iranian model" tunnels because, unlike Hezbollah and Hamas Islamists, who Tehran trains, Syrian Islamists have to adapt their construction techniques. This means building tunnels and trenches very quickly and through solid rock--a much more difficult process than simply hollowing out packed sand, the predominant medium at certain tunnel locations in Gaza and some part of Lebanon.
The occupation of Adra al-Omalia lasted nearly ten months, commencing in December 11, 2013, when fighters from al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, another jihadi group, captured the main employee residential complex, using an old sewer to outflank government forces. Many apartments in the area were quickly burned or gutted with grenades or other explosive devices, the reasoning being that jihadists believed the residents loyal to the government. What quickly took place was a massacre, and many eyewitness accounts of the events are now surfacing. Mazhar Ibrahim is a doctor originally from the Tartus countryside who has lived in Adra for the past several years and who recalls what happened as the militants infiltrated into the city last December:
"Since the earlier hours of that day, I had heard the crackle of gunfire in front of my house that is in front of a bakery. Then I realized that it was fire being exchanged between the militants and the bakery guards. I escaped with my wife and my daughter, Kristin, to a nearby shelter, where dozens of residents were hiding. Then the armed men found the shelter; they started torturing, killing and investigating, and demanding to know who supports the regime and who works with the government. The militants cut off the hands of the government workers in order to prevent the resumption of their work and to behead some of them and to torture their bodies in front of the children's eyes."
The doctor also described the horrific scenes that he, with his family, saw of decomposed, tortured and beheaded bodies, which were thrown all over the streets. His wife said that, "The armed men were non-Syrians. We lived terrible days, before we could escape with only the clothes that we wore."