How a suicide attack on a civilian convoy was spun into a sectarian conspiracy
Terrorism hasn’t been uncommon during the Syrian conflict, but the attack at al-Rashideen stuck with many as an extra case of cheap brutality. Mostly targeting children escaping Shia-majority towns besieged for years, the act of violence seemed to display a sectarian character and was done almost out of spite. The convoys which were thus stopped several kilometers from their destination in the government-controlled areas were part of the so-called “Four Towns Agreement”, which pretty much traded the majority of the civilian population of rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani for pro-government Fu’ah and Kafriya.
No group has claimed responsibility for the car bomb, but the context makes it probable that either a splinter group from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s more radical wing or a lone radicalised fighter was the author. Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the main opposition groups having negotiated the Four Towns Agreement, were accompanying the convoy on that day and lost about twenty fighters in the suicide bombing. A theory circulated among the opposition at the time, implicating the Syrian government which supposedly attempted to divert attention from another case of extreme brutality, the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun eleven days earlier. Nevertheless this theory gained little traction.
Although the tragic day has long been overshadowed by subsequent events of the Syrian war, several families whose children have gone missing either during or in the aftermath of the bombing are still seeking justice. And revisiting the suicide bombing at al-Rashideen to situate it within the Syrian conflict becomes crucial, as pro-Assad activists are instrumentalising the suffering of the families from Fu’ah and Kafriya to push for a sectarian reading of the events of the war and whitewash the crimes of the Syrian government.
For instance, about a year after the start of the revolution, one of the deadliest massacres of the Syrian conflict was perpetrated in Houla by fighters allegedly belonging to a pro-government paramilitary usually referred to as the “shabiha”, a survivor even recalling “Shia slogans on their foreheads as they went house to house searching out and slaughtering Sunni families.”
Several Shia extremist groups, such as Hezbollah, which had participated in Assad’s campaign to reconquer Eastern Aleppo during the last months of 2016, have only contributed to reinforcing the sectarian narratives. And later, together with the Iranian state, Hezbollah has been instrumental in brokering the aforementioned “Four Towns Agreement”, which not only constituted a war crime, but was also a way of “realigning the country into zones of influence that backers of Bashar al-Assad [could] directly control and use to advance broader interests”, as The Guardian reports.
Rather than singling out a religious group, these reminders serve to show that the violence often originated in one camp, the same one whose repression of peaceful protests resulted in a nation-wide uprising, which then set the stage for Sunni extremism in many regions of Syria. It also avoids a certain de-contextualisation of extremist violence, which divorces it from artificial attempts of stoking ancient divides.
That’s why, when the Four Towns Agreement was set into motion in April, delayed in part be the infighting among rebel groups, it nearly came as a relief to those civilians whose hometowns no longer promised safety. After all, the sieges of Madaya and Zabadani, but also those of Fu’ah and Kafriya, were described by Amnesty as targeting “densely populated areas, depriving civilians of food, medicine and other basic necessities in violation of international humanitarian law. Besieged civilians have further endured relentless, unlawful attacks from the ground and the air. The systematic use of this policy by the government [and, to a lesser degree, armed opposition groups] has become widely referred to, including by the United Nations (UN), as a “surrender or starve” strategy.”
Even then, the rebel siege of Fu’ah and Kafriya is less attributable to an atavistic hatred of the Shia minority, than to a tactical, albeit cynical, calculation instrumentalizing the fate of the besieged citizens to promote the survival of several rebel-held regions in turn encircled by Assad and his allies.
Controversial reports of a mass kidnapping
Though the Syrian doctor hosted by the organisers to recount the al-Rashideen bombing gave a rather objective account of the tragedy, he mentioned a “kidnapping” of 54 children, which Hayes himself had transformed into a large conspiracy implicating the White Helmets.
Together with deputies Daly and Wallace in November 2017, Hayes visited the government-controlled Syria as part of an Irish delegation he had personally brought together. Another one of its members, peace activist Edward Horgan, shares the list of 54 children that went missing following the suicide attack, compiled by their families. According to Horgan, who is involved in a project that is trying to put a name on all child casualties of wars in the Middle East, the trip “included visits to Damascus, Homs and Aleppo”. In Damascus they “met a group of survivors from the Al Rashideen bus bombing and got the names of the children killed and the details of those children missing from their friends and relatives. Some of those listed as missing may have been killed because up to ten of the [victims’] bodies could not be identified due to the severity of the blast and burning.”
According to Horgan, “some of Declan Hayes' views on the situation in Syria tend to be very one-sided, so some of what he says and writes should be treated with caution.” In Hayes’ words, the children were not only kidnapped (by the White Helmets, present at the scene to rescue civilians minutes after the attack), but “held hostage in Turkey, the richer children for ransom and the rest to be chopped up for Turkey’s booming human organ harvesting trade”.
The cynical phrasing together with a sectarian narrative, which makes the entire Syrian conflict into a “slaughter of Shias”, does not pay tribute to the victims of a horrendous attack. On the contrary, it politicizes the families’ quest for justice in a perverse and disingenuous way, while maligning the very people who helped them.
In fact, the footage of the attack’s immediate aftermath displays Syrian Arab Red Crescent working hand in hand with the Syrian White Helmets, otherwise known as the Syrian Civil Defense, in order to rescue the victims—evidence enough for Russia Today and bloggers such as Vanessa Beeley to suggest a coordinated ploy. Despite an inscription in Arabic on the side of the White Helmets’ firefighting truck clearly identifying the group as the one based in Urem al-Kubra, a town in Aleppo governorate only 20 minutes away from the scene.
The stories of kidnapping of victims from Fu’ah and Kafriya appear in contradictory reports which mention either 200 or “30 to 40” missing civilians, either “mostly girls” or “young men”. Four days later, according to one source, 150 previously “abducted” victims of the bombing arrived in Aleppo after having been…treated in opposition hospitals, a story corroborated by Amnesty that speaks of “ambulances evacuated the injured to Bab al-Hawa hospital and other field hospitals in Idleb governorate.”
Perhaps the most mysterious of all is a December 2017 report from the Assad government's official Syrian Arab News Agency from December 2017 announcing the release of 15 supposedly kidnapped civilians thanks to “the great efforts exerted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent”, only this time, instead of Turkey, they had been held in “Aroum”, or Urum al-Kubra, the location of one of Red Crescent’s own bases where they could have been brought by the aid workers themselves.
To clarify this, I reached out to Abd Alkader Habak, a Syrian photographer who was present at the scene at the time of the attack: an image of him rescuing a child from the site of the bombing has gone viral. Contacted via WhatsApp, he told that following the attack, “the wounded were all taken to hospitals inside Syrian territory, but there was a single child who was transferred to Turkey because of the severe injury. About a month ago, the child was brought back to his family by the Turkish Red Crescent and the Syrian Red Crescent. The Turkish Red Crescent was searching for his family until they found her and the child was taken to his family.”
Amidst a brutal and rapidly sectarianising conflict, the events in al-Rashideen were a mind-numbingly horrific incident, but also an extra example of how uncertainty at times of war plays into the hands of those whose credibility depends on their own war crimes being whitewashed.
“Of course if children are missing,” an activist explains, “we are very concerned for them, as we are for all the children of Syria harmed by whomsoever (most were killed by Assad). In a war situation children separated from family, even for medical care, are always very vulnerable. Sadly some of the missing children may be among the unidentified dead.”
Not getting to the bottom of what happened that day is certainly frustrating, but at least admitting so frankly spares us misleading narratives, which might be just one step away from conspiracy theories smearing rescue workers in a war-torn country. Researching what happened at al-Rashideen on April 15, 2017 reminded me of the words of caution I had heard a little earlier from someone also closely following the conflict: “If your first reaction to what is happening in Syria is not speechlessness, I wonder what kind of person you are.”
When asked about what he could do about the children who went missing in al-Rashideen, Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade gave his “personal assurance”, that if he was “given something [he] could follow up” regarding the event, he would be “more than happy to do it.”
Perhaps, this is for the best. “We are finding it very hard to verify the true situation but Coveney's Department may be in a position to find out more,” says an Irish activist campaigning for justice in Syria. The information assembled in this piece is far from sufficient to trace an accurate portrait of the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict, but it is enough to call out unprincipled supporters of war criminals, for whom the loss of life in foreign countries matters solely when they are able to integrate it into their own political narrative to fight sectarian battles at home.