How tragedy in a small town foreshadowed Syria’s fate

Uprisings in Jisr Al Shughur were a sign of the violence that would consume the country two decades later

Yusuf Al Jisri looks out over Jisr Al Shughur where, as a 16-year-old, his life was interrupted by a local uprising and brutal government crackdown. Abd Almajed Alkarh for The National

The Syrian civil war may have begun after the uprisings of 2011, but for Haitham Al Marmour and his neighbours it started more than 40 years ago.

At the age of 19, Mr Al Marmour was caught up in the regime crackdown on the 1980 uprising in north Syria’s Jisr Al Shughur and thrown into the notorious Tadmor Prison in Palmyra.

Mr Al Marmour and other survivors say the regime’s response to the local uprising led to a spiral of violence that lasted years, preceding a terrifying crackdown in Hama two years later that may have killed up to 10,000 people.

The violence was repeated in towns across Syria and when the uprisings erupted in 2011 this same crackdown helped to fuel the civil war.

Jisr Al Shughur, like cities across the country, was heavily shelled when the war began – more than 50,000 locals fled to Turkey. Today, it is caught between extremists and rebels on one side and the regime and its Russian allies on the other.

A crackdown that foreshadowed war

During the months he was imprisoned in Tadmor prison in 1980 and tortured, Mr Al Marmour wondered who had reported him to the state.

When, finally, he was dragged out of his cell to sign what he describes as a fake confession and released, he learnt the truth.

“It was a local fellow, we used to sit together at the same desk for study sessions before university. We both took part in championship tournaments at Jisr Al Shughur sports club,” he says.

Arsuzi street,  which was significantly damaged during the massacre. Abd Almajed Alkarh for The National

Mr Al Marmour was from a middle-class family – his father was a maths teacher, his grandfather the local doctor. But after the events he witnessed, he never returned to university to finish his studies.

He says the man who reported him, however, got a job at a military scientific research facility in Aleppo despite getting poor university grades and, he thinks, went on to apply his chemistry degree to help the air force build “barrel bombs” – crude oil barrels filled with shrapnel and explosives – to continue to suppress dissent.

Jisr Al Shughur and the Muslim Brotherhood crackdown

Jisr Al Shughur was once an idyllic town surrounded by olive groves in north Syria’s Idlib province.

The government says the 1980 crackdown came after Muslim Brotherhood militants seized on a protest over the arrest of a local man to attack government forces and the local office of the ruling Baath party. Locals recall a mass protest escalating as youths sacked a police station and seized arms, turning them on the state.

A Syrian air force Mi 24 helicopter dropping bombs over the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, south of the Syrian capital Damascus. AFP

In response, the regime sent in tanks to encircle and shell the town, then sent in ground troops supported by helicopter gunships.

“Forty helicopters transporting forces of the regime landed south of the city. The rebels countered them. The battle lasted for a whole day,” says Yusuf Al Jisri, who witnessed the bloody events.

Then, he says, the mass arrests began.

“They arrested 160 to 200 people of all ages and took them to the post office,” he says.

Idlib’s governor Tawfeq Saliha presided over the impromptu courts and ordered the execution of dozens. Others were simply shot in the streets, Mr Al Jisri says. Mr Saliha, he believes, was promoted for his handling of the uprising.

He and fellow survivor Mazen Al Marmur recall that the regime targeted prominent families, local landowners, university students and those known for dissent against the government. They say children were also arrested.

Yusuf Al Jisri leaning on the bridge over the Orontes River. Abd Almajed Alkarh for The National

“Some representatives of parties competing with the Baath party wanted to incite the demonstrators for their own good, turning it into an armed mutiny,” Mr Al Marmur says.

“Suspects were selected in the most devilish manner,” he says.

He believes many of those executed are buried in a mass grave near the former military intelligence headquarters in Idlib city.

Others, like Mr Al Marmour, were sent to Tadmor Mrison.

The government troops also looted houses and burnt down markets.

“[President] Hafez Al Assad wanted to make it a lesson for the rest of the Syrian cities,” Mr Al Marmur says.

Bassam Ahmed, not his real name, was a soldier involved in the crackdown.

He said his unit of 11 soldiers followed behind special forces squads and intelligence units. He says it was those units that carried out the executions and arrests, insisting regular soldiers like him were held back.

As an explosive expert, however, he says he was ordered to blow up the homes of suspected rebels.

Mr Al Jisri, who witnessed the killings, recalls seeing intelligence forces kidnap and kill a member of the local Hili family.

“He resisted them for five hours and killed three of the intelligence service personnel but after that, they killed him and dragged his body by car through the city streets. I saw it in front of me,” he says.

A local teacher met the same fate. “They killed him with gunshots in front of his family and people from his village,” he says.

The campaign of kidnappings, arrests and killings continued through 1980, not just in Jisr Al Shughur but nationwide, with people disappearing at random.

The massacre was a prelude to the far larger Hama massacre, the world's first glimpse of the Assad dynasty's modus operandi, in which entire cities were surrounded and levelled in the civil war, later with Russian help.

Destroyed buildings after an alleged Syrian government forces' barrel bomb attack in Aleppo. AFP Photo

Mr Al Marmur’s elder brother was arrested during a lecture at Aleppo University, accused of being a Muslim Brotherhood member – charges he denies - and sentenced to death. After 12 years, he was released in a general amnesty in 1996.

“For more than a year [after my release], I was afraid of meeting people because the intelligence services could reach me if I uttered a single word,” Haitham Al Marmour says.

But when the 2011 uprisings began, he was one of the first to join them.

“I experienced injustice in my youth, and the city witnessed another massacre in June 2011,” he says. “The bloody memories of the Baath government have stayed with Syrians for 40 years.”

Updated: March 03, 2022, 4:00 AM