Tartus families demonstrate to ‘break siege’ on airport

AMMAN: Dozens of family members of regime soldiers took to the streets in the coastal city of Tartus on Monday, calling on the regime to break the ongoing Islamic State (IS) siege of the Kweiris military airport in the east Aleppo countryside amidst fears of a massacre, pro-regime Tartous Today reported.

“The level of demonstrators’ demands was very limited, just the request to break the siege and for the bodies of their sons,” Salim al-Umar, a reporter for al-Araby al-Jadeed originally from the area told Syria Direct on Tuesday. 

The Kweiris military airport and the adjacent Air Force College lie approximately 200km northeast of Tartus and have been encircled by various rebel groups for more than two years, and by IS fighters in particular since May 2014.

IS launched a heavy assault on Kweiris this past Sunday, and a combination of exploding trucks and fierce clashes produced high regime casualties. Of the 25 soldiers killed in the attack, 17 were Air Force officers and three were brigadier generals, opposition Zaman al-Wasl reported on Monday, with 50 others wounded.

Zaman al-Wasl reported that 800 regime officers and soldiers are currently in Kweiris.

Last month, 90 regime soldiers from pro-regime Tartus province were killed in fighting throughout the country, Al-Jazeera quoted local activist Omar al-Tartusi as saying.

Alongside their signs, demonstrators at the gathering carried Syrian flags.

“We want the bodies of our martyrs, we want our wounded, we want to break the siege on our steadfast heroes in Kweiris airport,” one of the demonstrators’ signs reads.

 Family members of regime soldiers demonstrate in Tartus. Photo courtesy of Syrian Press Center

Trouble at home

The demonstrations in Tartus came two days after another regime stronghold on the coast, Latakia city, was hit by protests in response to the murder of a regime officer by Suleiman Hilal al-Assad, one of embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s relatives.

The approximately 1,000 protesters gathered at a-Ziraa circle in Latakia city on Saturday, chanting “the people want the execution of Suleiman.”

Two days after the explosion of popular anger in the Alawite city, official regime news agency SANA announced that al-Assad’s arrest and said that he had been conferred to the appropriate authorities.

Ghosts of Tabqa

In Tartus, about 70km south of Latakia city, demonstrators’ fears for their family members in Kweiris are fed by memories of the Tabqa airbase massacre just under a year ago.

The regime’s Tabqa military airbase in A-Raqqa province fell to IS late last August after a five-day battle in which an estimated 200 Syrian army soldiers were killed. In the aftermath of the defeat, while hundreds of regime soldiers fled towards Hama, 160 others were captured, paraded on camera, and executed in the desert three days later.

An Open Syria report filed last December investigated the march of the prisoners into the desert and their later execution in IS’s “Strike Fear” video.

Strike fear it did, by bringing out demonstrators in the regime’s stronghold city on Monday.

Even so, some family members of those trapped in Kweiris express confidence in the ability of the regime to save their relatives.

“Victory will surely come,” Issam Abu Sada, told Tartus Now on Monday. “We are confident, despite the intensification of the attacks.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.