Syria: Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the siege of Adra as Islamist rebels are accused of massacre

Rebels were accused of a massacre in the town last month, forcing survivors to flee or hide. Patrick Cockburn finds that neither side has the strength for a victory

“They came through the main sewer at 4.30am and caught us by surprise,” says a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali, describing the rebel capture of part of the industrial town of Adra, just north of Damascus. “They chose a cold day in December to attack when there was snow and you could not see more than 2ft in front of you.”

Adra, with its giant cement, steel and car plants, has now become one more Syrian town where the army and rebels confront each other but neither side has the strength to win a decisive victory. As they skirmish, locals either flee or cower in their houses with little or no electricity or water.

The rebels who stormed the workers’ housing complex at Adra on 11 December belonged to two much-feared jihadi groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, and the Jaysh al-Islam.

Khalal al-Helmi, a frail-looking 63-year-old retired employee of the oil ministry, says: “Three men came into our building and shouted ‘Go down to the basement’. We were down there three days.” 

What went on in the streets of Adra immediately after the rebel occupation appears to add another grisly page to the list of atrocities in the Syrian civil war. Survivors say at least 32 members of religious minorities – Alawi, Christians, Druze and Shia – were killed immediately or taken away by gunmen who went from house to house with lists of names.

They are also reported to have killed doctors and nurses in a clinic and workers in a bakery who were thrown into their own ovens. Given that the jihadis still hold this part of Adra, the exact details cannot be checked, but survivors who have taken refuge in an enormous cement plant three miles away have no doubt that a massacre took place.

Smoke rises from a fire in Adra, east of Damascus in December 2013 Smoke rises from a fire in Adra, east of Damascus in December 2013 (Reuters)
It is not easy to get to Adra, even though it is close to Damascus. We took a highway through the mountains west of the capital and then suddenly drove off it on to a precipitous earth track down which an enormous orange truck with a trailer carrying  a bulldozer was driving in front of us. The bulldozer turned out to be one of several making tracks through the scrub and heaping banks of earth to offer some protection from rifle fire. “Drive fast because there are many snipers about,” said an army officer escorting our small convoy.

Government U-turn will see hundreds of Syrian refugees come to Britain  

Our destination was the giant cement plant which a former worker, now a refugee, said once employed 937 workers and produced 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes of cement a day. It now looks like an enormous, dead mechanical monster with pathetic clothes lines carrying refugees’ washing strung between big concrete columns. Nearby was a small party of displaced people from Adra looking bedraggled and depressed. They said the army brought them bread but they were short of everything else.

The fall of part of Adra turned out, like almost everything else in the Syrian civil war, to be more complicated than first accounts. The town was always vulnerable because it is just north of Douma and Eastern Ghouta, both rebel strongholds. An English teacher called Billal said he had been a refugee for a year because the rebels had first taken the old town of Adra in February last year. He and his father took refuge in housing near the cement plant. It was only months later that Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam launched a second well-planned attack down a sewage tunnel that had outflanked the army defenders.

Syrian Army officers said they thought there were some 500 rebels in the big new housing complex at Adra. It is doubtful if they really know because they also said the rebels were digging tunnels so they could move without being fired on. They had local help, according to a former Adra resident, Hassan Kassim Mohammed, who said refugees from Douma and East Ghouta had been living in half-completed apartment blocks. These had acted as “sleeper cells” for the rebels and had given them lists of government employees. An employee of the information ministry, Heytham Mousa, has disappeared with his wife and daughter and his mobile phone is answered by a man who says he belongs to Jabhat al-Nusra.

The fact that neither delegation has walked out of Geneva II is a triumph of sorts  

I asked several officers why they did not counter-attack and retake Adra. They answered that there were thousands of civilians there whom the rebels were using as “human shields” and they denied an alternative explanation that they were short of soldiers. Even so, it was striking how few Syrian Army troops there were yesterday, either at the cement plant or in the front line, where there had been fighting around a bridge earlier in the week.

“They captured it and we took it back in five hours fighting,” said Abu Ali. An explanation as to quite why small rebel enclaves persist in Damascus and Homs is that government forces cannot afford to suffer the casualties inevitable if they stormed them. They have therefore relied on sieges and artillery bombardment to wear down rebel-held districts.

Pro-Assad demonstrators in front of the United Nations headquarters in Damascus, protesting against what they said is the UN inaction over the situation in Adra Pro-Assad demonstrators in front of the United Nations headquarters in Damascus, protesting against what they said is the UN inaction over the situation in Adra (Reuters)
There may be doubts about the exact number of people murdered in Adra but not about the suffering of those who have fled to the industrial zone. It is cold even in the middle of the day and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent yesterday issued a statement saying it “was deeply concerned about the plight of the Adra residents who had fled the area”. It had distributed 31,000 blankets and 7,000 mattresses and was trying to provide clean water to 30,000 people.Adra is now surrounded by sand and rubble with occasional Syrian army outposts on top. Even so, the exact position of the front line was worryingly uncertain. At one point, a couple of Syrian army soldiers seem to have mistaken us for the enemy and fired a couple of shots.

A soldier in the vehicle in front of us jumped on to a heap of rocks and waved furiously in the direction from which the firing had come. Around the corner we came on what appeared to be an entire Syrian armoured division but we turned out to have stumbled on a tank cemetery where the Syrian army disposes of obsolete tanks which are left to gradually rust away.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform