Human Rights Watch has reported that 54 women and children taken hostage by armed rebel groups in Alawite villages in rural Latakia are still being held, one year later.
At least 20 armed groups were involved in a weeks-long military operation, which began August 4, 2013, and was dubbed the “operation to liberate the coast.” The hostages were taken immediately after. Latakia province, still largely under the control of Assad forces, has generally been safe for Alawite civilians – members of the Assad family’s ethnic minority.
HRW reports that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has a small presence in the province, held between 110 and 120 hostages last September, and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, another rebel group that has been accused of extremist tendencies and cooperating with jihadist militants, then held another 105. Later in September, the armed group Ahrar al-Sham assumed control of the hostages.
On Sept. 7, a YouTube video showed some of the hostages being held by Abu Suhaib, the Libyan local leader of al-Muhajireen. Three of the Latakia villagers confirmed the authenticity of the video to HRW by identifying their kidnapped relatives in the background.
Lama Fakih, HRW’s Syria-Lebanon researcher, spent time in the villages in the wake of the attacks and has been following the hostages’ case. We asked her to weigh in on how the armed groups worked together against Alawite civilians, and what makes their case unique.
Syria Deeply: Which armed groups are responsible?
Lama Fakih: In the initial stages we know ISIS and Muhajireen were two groups implicated by the individuals who spoke to us from the armed opposition in the area. The same individuals later told us the hostages were transferred [from the custody] of Ahrar al-Sham. We believe that Ahrar al-Sham has been involved in negotiations for hostages.
Syria Deeply: Who was taken and why?
Fakih: Women and children were taken from their homes in the Latakia countryside, from Alawite villages that were attacked by armed rebel groups last year. There was a two-week-long operation in a series of villages, during which we documented extensive civilian casualties. The reports reflected that over 200 people had initially been taken hostage.
We know 40 of them were released this May, but there have been some troubling reports saying others – we have the names of 17 – were executed immediately after their abduction. Now we have [this new list] of individuals identifying themselves as being in the custody of the Muhajireen in the Latakia countryside. And there are unconfirmed reports that other hostages are being held in other locations.
Based on the conversations we’ve had with the families, it is clear there are ongoing negotiations [between the regime and armed rebel groups] to release the hostages. The government is well aware that these individuals have been taken. We’ve been looking to the groups who have been holding them to release them – they are civilians.
Syria Deeply: Have kidnappings been frequent in the area? What makes this case unique?
Fakih: We have seen a trend of abductions, detentions or attempts to exchange individuals for those held by the Syrian government. We’ve seen it with foreign journalists and humanitarian workers, but also with Syrian civilians. What’s unique about this case is that this is a large number of [Alawite] civilians who have been abducted. This is one of the largest recent abductions. And ISIS has also abducted more than 100 Kurdish children, who were coming from their exams a few months ago.
I’ve visited these villages – they’re rural, agricultural, small villages, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. People were not armed, not anticipating an attack like this. They were caught unaware.
So in this case, it’s really destroyed these communities – they are still reeling from the attacks and now from the ongoing absence of their relatives. They’re thinking the worst. Hostage taking has served to really create an atmosphere of fear among the civilian population. It’s targeted violence.