Salkeen, Idlib Province – The centre of Salkeen in northern Syria looked deceptively normal, just a day after the town came under lethal government air strikes.
Shops were open for business. Residents strolled through the main square. Children could be seen playing in the narrow streets.
Yet a closer look at the streets of Salkeen revealed the brutal scars of war. Away from the square, sidewalks were stained with blood and littered with broken glass.
Residents said six people were killed when government forces attacked the rebel-held town bordering Turkey on Friday. Dozens of people were injured, locals said, including many children.
Three siblings – Basel, 12, Doriyeh, 10, and Raghad, 8 – were injured by shrapnel as a rocket detonated near their home while they played.
The children were angry at those responsible for the blast. They cursed President Bashar al-Assad and wished the president’s sons would endure the same fate. Their 10-year-old cousin was seriously injured in the same attack and had to be taken to Turkey for treatment.
Down the street from the children’s home, a vicious argument was under way. A woman had been killed by a rocket, and some of her neighbours said she and her family supported Assad.
The brother of the slain woman called one of the anti-government neighbours a “dog”. The neighbour responded: “You are a shabeeh [pro-Assad militia member]”. Bystanders were soon forced to intervene.
Support for Assad
Salkeen was captured by rebels after fierce fighting with regime forces two months ago, but opposition activists say 70 per cent of the town either supports Assad, or at least is opposed to the uprising against him.
“I am ashamed to say that the town is mainly pro-Assad, but this is the reality,” Ahmad, an activist who organised anti-government protests in the town, told Al Jazeera.
Support for Assad, a member of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, does not fall along sectarian lines, at least not in Salkeen. Most of the town’s 40,000 residents are Sunni Muslims, with only a handful of Alawite families.
“People support Assad because they are ignorant, and because instability caused by the uprising has harmed their personal interests,” Ahmad said.
Before the conflict began, Salkeen was considered to be a town pampered by the regime. Despite its relatively small size, several local officials were appointed to senior positions in the Assad administration. The former education minister and the former governors of Homs and Raqqa provinces all hailed from Salkeen.
Assad loyalists believe the presence of rebels was the reason the town was targeted in the latest round of air strikes. In fact, rebels had staged a parade in the town’s main square after forming a new batallion of the Free Syria Army (FSA) the day the town was hit.
Activists told Al Jazeera that government informants had reported the parade to the regime. MiG fighter jets soon bombarded the centre. All casualties were civilians, except for an injured fighter, according to residents.
But residents opposed to Assad said that if the regime were really interested in targeting the rebels, the air force should have bombed the FSA’s military bases outside residential areas.
“The regime is intentionally targeting the centre of the town and residential areas to widen the tensions between the residents and FSA,” Abu Ahmad, a Salkeen resident, speculated during a conversation with Al Jazeera.
Difference of opinion
Despite the occasional outburst or argument, residents with opposing views on the conflict mostly live in peace in Salkeen, buying from each others’ shops and paying visits to one another.
“It’s a difference of opinion, and we are okay with that,” Abu Ahmad said.
“As long as they support Assad verbally and not militarily, they are welcome here,” he said about those siding with the regime. “Most of the Alawite families remained in the town because nobody disturbed them.”
Instead of being preoccupied with disagreements, residents are focusing on rebuilding state institutions.
The rebels established courts and police centres after the withdrawal of the regime forces to maintain law and order. Most state employees remain in their positions, managing services such as electricity, water, telephone and the post office. They try to stay neutral so that they can receive their salaries from the government while helping their hometown.
In Salkeen, electricity runs for only two hours a day and running water is a luxury. Even so, the town is one of the few in Idlib province that still has functioning state services.
While the regime has lost control of Salkeen, the state has not collapsed, Abu Ahmad said.
“Yes, we have some problems in Salkeen. But we are solving our issues as they come, with our own hands. We’re always trying to overcome our differences for the sake of the town.”
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