To the east of Mhardeh, a Christian-majority city in the northern Hama countryside, sits a frontline where pro-regime forces and opposition fighters are clashing for the third straight week.
The battles are moving closer to Mhardeh. As residents flee, Syrian Arab Army forces and allied militias are moving into the regime-controlled city, setting up a makeshift base for their campaign against opposition forces to the east.
Clashes continued on Wednesday as rebel factions in nearby Halfaya claimed to drive back a regime attempt to storm the city from Mhardeh. Halfaya is just under 2 kilometers to the east of Mhardeh.
Battles around Mhardeh began on March 21 when rebel factions in Syria’s northwest launched a renewed offensive to capture Hama city—20 kilometers southeast—and the nearby military airport.
After several days of swift gains by opposition forces, regime reinforcements mobilized to stem the offensive. Now, two weeks later, the Syrian Arab Army and their allies have erased almost all of the rebel’s initial gains.
Iraqi, Iranian and Hezbollah militias—key regime allies in the counter-offensive—are stationed in Mhardeh. Local schools are barracks and military equipment is stored in residential neighborhoods.
Mhardeh residents released a statement on Monday saying that they have had enough.
“These militias are launching attacks from Mhardeh’s soil on our Syrian brothers,” the statement said. “We are demanding that the militias leave.”
“We want them to get out, to not use our city for their war,” Shams, a Mhardeh resident who supports the town’s stance, tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.
Last month, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that battles and bombardment in the northern Hama countryside have already displaced up to 40,000 residents.
Q: Residents of Mhardeh released statements on Monday and Tuesday condemning the regime and its allies’ use of the city as a base for military operations. Do you support this statement? Are residents afraid of repercussions from regime forces or pro-Assad militias?
Yes, of course. This statement was from all residents of Mhardeh. We didn’t include any names or specific organizations in the statement out of a fear of backlash or detainment.
Mhardeh in December 2016. Photo courtesy of Mhardeh News Network.
Q: Monday’s statement says that Mhardeh and the surrounding villages are being “occupied by Hezbollah forces, as well as Iran and Assad’s militias.” What does Mhardeh look like right now?
The city is practically under occupation because of the huge number of Iranian and Iraqi militias, Hezbollah fighters and National Defense Forces from Hama and Homs. There are also numerous members of the [Syrian] Air Force and the Fifth Assault Corps [a volunteer-based brigade of the Syrian Arab Army].
They are using our land and our town to strike opposition-controlled areas in the countryside, embroiling us in a war that has nothing to do with us. This makes it seem as though we’re supporters of what’s happening, of the [regime’s] military actions. This is unacceptable.
Q: How has the presence of militias in the city affected your daily life? Have you or your fellow residents encountered issues with the militias in the area?
The militias have been in the city since opposition forces launched their battle.
Their military equipment sits between residential areas. The militias have turned schools into barracks, and schooling is suspended.
A few militias have taken over [vacant] workshops and homes belonging to Mhardeh residents.
Q: Though there have not been any clashes within city limits, Mhardeh sits just west of a rebel-regime frontline. How has this affected you and other residents? Are people still fleeing the city?
We’re very scared and on edge. There have been shells falling on us for three days. Today [Tuesday] was the most violent day, with injuries and large-scale destruction. Now, I’m living in my basement with my family and my children in a state of terror. Since the morning, bombs have been falling nearby. We are a minority, and unfortunately, our blood is cheaply spilt.
The city has witnessed a large wave of displacement since the military operation began. People are afraid as the battles approach the area. They are afraid of regime rumors that the region will be encircled. I’d estimate that around 300 families have fled.
After the first few days of displacement, a large number of people returned. But after the latest escalation in the battle, people are fleeing once more.
Q: Do you think that awareness campaigns and statements can have any impact on the situation? What do Mhardeh’s residents want at this stage?
We are calling for the militias to leave our city, which has long been a safe place. If local [pro-Assad] fighters, Hezbollah forces, Iraqi and Iranian militias remain, Mhardeh will keep being exploited.
We want them to get out, to not use our city for their war. They publish pictures of their strikes on pro-regime webpages, talking about paving the way for an invasion of Halfaya [a rebel-controlled city to the northeast], as though the regime were showering the countryside with love, roses and mercy, rather than bombs.
But, sadly, I don’t think pressure from civilians will be able to force out the militias. What I see for the future is all sides working towards death, displacement, and destruction.