By Nuha Shabaan and Kristen Gillespie
AMMAN: The Syrian Coalition declared the rural Hama town of Halfaya a “disaster zone” on Thursday as activists reported a mass execution of at least 15 civilians who had attempted to return to their homes after fleeing in recent days.
Assad’s forces entered the abandoned city of 30,000 on Thursday after two weeks of shelling and aerial bombardment. “The city of Halfaya has been systemically destroyed,” the Coalition said in a statement.
“There are many reasons why Halfaya fell, including the shortage in rebels’ arms and the lack of communication among the battalions on the ground,” said Ahmed al-Ahmed, the head of the independent Hama Media Center.
FSA fighters who participated in the battle for Halfaya expressed surprise over their defeat in Halfaya, saying they had been well-armed and prepared to win. “We had all the arms and ammunition we needed, so I don’t know why [the battalions inside Halfaya] withdrew, said Amer, 22, a citizen journalist embedded with the FSA in Kafr Nabboudah, a few kilometers north of Halfaya. The unit he is embedded with, Ahfad a-Rasoul Battalion, had successfully fired rockets into the Deir Mhardeh checkpoint, just west of Halfaya along with other checkpoints surrounding the city. “The rebels who were fighting in Halfaya sold it out,” he said, reflecting a view expressed by several fighters involved with the battle.
Despite staving off the regime, the FSA battalions inside Halfaya “left under the sight of the regime’s army without firing a single bullet,” Amer said.
“I don’t know what happened, but we had the upper hand and full control,” said Abo al-Motasem, 34, the head of the Muwaiya Ibn Abu Sufian Battalions that engaged in the Halfaya fighting along the dangerous southern frontline because the battalion had anti-armor weaponry. The Syrian army tried to advance along the west, but was forced to retreat, the fighter said, adding that the regime was unable to gain “even one meter” from the east. “We were surprised when we got an order to withdraw” early Sunday morning, Abo al-Motasem said.
After the FSA left, fighters and activists say, the regime army entered the city, plundering and burning houses and harvests to the ground and then withdrew. Regime forces then called for residents to return to Halfaya, with the most vulnerable who had not found shelter elsewhere starting to come back, said Naser, 24, a rebel fighter who took part in the battle.
“They didn’t expect that Alawite citizens of [the neighboring town of] Mahardeh would follow them and kill 15 of them,” said Naser. It could not be independently verified who killed the 15 Halfayans, but the Syrian Coalition statement and other activists have provided similar accounts of the reported mass execution taking place.
Naser’s battalion is preparing for a fresh battle for Halfaya. “We want to respond to this massacre and we will avenge their deaths using [the regime’s] methods.”
The loss of Halfaya endangers the villages in north rural Hama province currently under rebel control, activists say. On the flip side, “If Halfaya were liberated, the entire northern rural areas of Hama would be liberated,” Amer said.
The city lies along the Orontes River, and is surrounded by villages with significant Alawite populations.
Halfaya residents have sought refuge in neighboring villages, in makeshift camps in olive-tree orchards and even in caves, local activists say.
The city of Halfaya, named after halfa, a needle-grass indigenous to the region used in basket-making, was founded along the Orontes River, used to irrigate the land along the riverbank. Known as the “vein of life” for residents, half of whom work in agriculture, Halfaya is known for producing grapes, molasses and livestock. It is known to the outside world as the site of the “Oven Massacre,” when in December 2012 regime shelling hit a bread line, killing nearly 70 people standing outside the bread oven and injuring dozens more.
While the battle for Halfaya may not be over, fighters and activists say a lack of clear coordination on the ground is hindering the rebels. If the battalions were united, Naser said, “we would have removed the regime a long time ago.”
The regime “is taking advantage of the division inside the opposition,” said Abo al-Motasem.