The towns of Nubul and Zahra constitute strategically valuable areas given their close proximity to a highway which links the major Syrian city of Aleppo and Syria’s frontier with Turkey. The towns populations are predominantly Shia and have remained behind the Syrian regime. Given their distance from Damascus they have proved quite difficult for the regime to defend. This was one of the reasons that the regime allowed the remainder of the Free Syrian Army opposition fighters holed up in the Old City of Homs to leave that city unmolested by the besieging army there into the surrounding countryside earlier last year, because their comrades in the Aleppo region had agreed to relent their siege of those two towns. That incident demonstrated, among other things, the strategic importance of that town to the regime and the various opposition groups.
The year which has just concluded aptly demonstrated the increasing risk and threat of Islamist groups whose power has been increasing amidst the chaos, instability and violence which has permeated throughout that war weary state and society. The most notorious has of course been the Islamic State group whose drive to establish a so-called “caliphate” has seen them butcher those who they deem to be heretical.
Then there is the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria who are similarly violent and fanatical. They are seeking to build an “emirate” on stolen Syrian territory in the country’s northwest and have been attacking Nubul and Zahra when they can. To date they haven’t succeeded in overrunning it and it’s doubtful they presently have the ability to mount a prolonged siege of the kind Islamic State did against the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani against those towns.
We can be almost certain about what could possibly happen the 40,000 mostly Shia Muslims who reside in those towns if Al-Nusra succeeds in overrunning them. Remember, Islamist groups like the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front vehemently despise the Shiites, arguably more than they do the “Christian Crusaders” and the “Jewish Zionists” they frequently denounce in the most withering of terms – they often refer to the Shia as “Safavids”, a clear reference to the dynasty which promulgated Shiism in Iran in the 1500’s.
As we have already seen with the likes of the Yazidi’s in Northern Iraq if Islamists like Nusra Front were successful in their attempts to overrun those two towns they would certainly have no compunction nor reservations about killing every man, woman and child there. Furthermore the killings would be primarily driven by pure hatred of the people due to their religion, a depraved and filthy ethnic cleansing of Shi’ite Muslims in other words.
While I do not wish to be alarmist it’s important to recognize what is at stake here. Remember, minority groups in Syria aren’t necessarily sadistic diehard supporters of Assad and the killings and atrocities he has been responsible for, many were coerced by the “republic of fear” that is the Baathist apparatus in Syria to remain quietly and obediently behind him and his regime. They fear for their livelihoods, not to mention lives, if they voice even mild reservations about the course action their authoritarian government has been taking.
We should bear that in mind and also not forget that if Islamists like this did successfully wrestle control of those two towns from their armed defenders we would surely see horrid atrocities being levelled against the civilians there. That would be a victory for no-one as it would solidify support from other fearful Syrian minorities for Assad, and it would likely give the Islamists more ground over the other opposition groups (who oppose both them and Assad) fighting in that area. Remember, opposition fighters like the FSA there are facing attacks by both the Syrian military and these Islamist groups who are seeking to completely eradicate them before turning their guns on the regime. Similarly the regime has been focusing its efforts on completely defeating those very same opposition forces first and foremost before it focuses on combating these hideously violent Islamists.