Why was Al-Atareb attacked?

November 21, 2017

Monday 13 November 2:08 pm
Syria, Al-Atareb. A crowded marketplace. A clear, blue sky. Suddenly there are two explosions at the vegetable market on the central market square. Shortly afterwards two more. And then two more. Dust and debris everywhere. Survivors walk around, confused and in shock. Rescue teams immediately spring into action to look for survivors. One of them is a pupil of the Baneen al Atareb no. 1 school in Al-Atareb, a school from PAX’s Lessons in Peace [link in Dutch] project.

Al-Atareb is a middle-sized town, 25 kilometres west of Aleppo. After the fall of Aleppo last winter, many displaced persons live in Al-Atareb. The town is located in a so-called de-escalation zone, which means it was designated by Iran, Russia and Turkey as a cease-fire zone, meaning there would be no aerial attacks. Armed groups and government forces would refrain from fighting there and humanitarian assistance would be allowed in. Areas occupied or controlled by Jihadi groups like Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS, formerly Nusra-front/al-Qaeda) and IS were excluded from the agreement. According to Mohammed Kanjo from our partner organization Kesh Malek, no jihadi groups were present in the town. The creation of de-escalation zones didn’t mean that all fighting stopped, but there was a notable improvement, according to Mohammed. Therefore, Monday’s attack came as a complete surprise.

The attack
Drone footage gives a good idea of the destruction at and around the market. The images show that the damage, extending 150 metres around the marketplace, is considerable. Live images on social media show a big explosion. The reported number of victims varies between 43 to 60 (or even more) casualties, among them children. Although it is difficult to confirm, most fingers point at Assad or the Russians for the attack.

Buying groceries at the market
Together with Kesh Malek, PAX runs two schools in Al-Atareb, made possible by the support of the Dutch National Postcode Lottery. They are the first and second Baneen al-Atareb schools, both in the same building. The schools have a morning and afternoon shift and are only a hundred metres from the market. At 1:00 pm the morning shift ended and the afternoon shift started. Mustafa Obaid, the director of the morning school, went home. His son Mohamed and his nephew, who lives with his family since Mustafa’s brother recently passed away, went to the market together.

When the explosions started at 2:08 pm, there were about 450 children in the school building. The sound of the explosions was tremendous. For a moment there was panic, but Abdelhakim, the director of the afternoon school, knew what to do and immediately evacuated the school. All children went to designated meeting points, classroom by classroom. Nobody was hurt, in part because all the windows were made of plastic, as a precaution for projected pieces of glass and splinters.

At Mustafa’s apartment, things were worse. His house is located at the edge of the market. With the first explosions, all the windows shattered. Glass was everywhere. But his first concern was the safety of his son and nephew at the market. He hurried there to find his son amidst the chaos and desperation, luckily only lightly wounded on his leg. He found his nephew much later in the emergency room at the hospital. His legs were wounded and he wasn’t able to walk.

Children were among those killed in the attack. The schools in Al-Atareb remained closed until after the weekend.

Deceptively Calm
According to our sources the attack came as a total surprise after a period of relative calmness. Al-Atareb is seen as a ‘moderate’ town, where a strong civil society has kept the jihadis of IS and HTS out. The armed groups that have a presence tend to keep a healthy distance from civil affairs like education, governance and public order. One of the main groups in Al-Atareb is Faylaq al-Sham (the Sham-legion) which is allied to the Muslim brotherhood. The group is seen as ‘moderate’. Although there had been fighting between different armed groups and HTS for a number of days before the attack, according to our sources in Al-Atareb itself it was quiet. That is, until Monday 13 November 2:08 pm.

What was the target?
Was the market deliberately targeted, with all men, women and children present at the time? The market was attacked before, in 2014 (warning: this link contains graphic images) and 2016. During both attacks civilians were killed. If so, it would constitute a blatant violation of the law of war, which forbids any deliberate targeting of civilians.

The office of the Free Syrian Police (FSP) was located next to the market. This building may have been the target, since the office was completely destroyed. According to the news site Aleppo today (in Arabic), 13 police officers were killed.

The FSP is an unarmed civilian police force, financed and supported by countries like the UK, mainly responsible for maintaining public order, traffic circulation and fighting crime. According to Mohammed from Kesh Malek, the officers do not carry heavy weapons, in order to not to be seen as competing with the armed groups in town.

Collateral damage?
But even if there was a legitimate target, the attack still raises serious concerns. First of all, civilians must be warned in advance. An attack also has to be proportionate and has to distinguish between civilians and military. With a death toll of 60 people this is difficult to defend. When explosive weapons are used in towns and villages, and certainly near a marketplace, the consequences for civilians are disastrous. The blast and fragmentation does not only kill and injure people, but also destroys vital infrastructure people are depending on. The ICRC therefore earlier called upon states to not use explosive weapons with a wide area effect in densely populated areas.

This has to stop
Syrian organizations are again calling for measures to protect civilians, not to forget them, and to protect them against the consequences of the conflict. These organizations highlight  the necessity for a long term political strategy for Syria instead of a short term focus on military gains.

The attack reinforces the constant fear of Syrian people, and once again shows the lack of respect for civilians living their lives. Unfortunately, that is no longer news. Still, we need to keep asking what happened and holding the actors to account. Regarding this attack, but also all the other attacks against Syrian civilians. We have to make sure the perpetrators are being held accountable and we must not forget what we are talking about when we talk about protection of civilians. As long as bombs are dropped and missiles are fired, civilians will die; also in the so-called de-escalation zones.

Thanks to: Roos Boer, Hugo van Halder, Mohammed Kanjo and Christiaan Triebert

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