Down from the mountain: Druze in Syria show growing resistance to Assad

Published January 9th, 2013 - 08:00 GMT
The Syrian flag flies high above a statue of Sultan Pasha al-Attrash in Swaida. (Photo: Ahram English)
The Syrian flag flies high above a statue of Sultan Pasha al-Attrash in Swaida. (Photo: Ahram English)

The Druze-majority province of Swaida in southern Syria has been one of the calmest regions in the country during nearly two years of popular insurrection, but the last month has seen an upswing in pro-opposition activity.

The number of Druze and Christian opposition “martyrs” from Swaida, both civilian and military, is tiny when compared to the tens of thousands of people who have perished across the country, supporting the argument that the anti-regime forces haven’t attracted wide support from minority (non-Sunni Muslim) communities.

But the regime has yet to put out the fires that have been smoldering in the Swaida region, whether in the provincial capital or the more than a dozen surrounding towns and villages.

A series of demonstrations took place in December, ranging from silent sit-ins and small nighttime gatherings to larger rallies and confrontations with regime forces. Pro-uprising social media mourned the deaths of several people from the province, hailing them as evidence that minorities are part of the opposition ranks.

One was 22-year-old Nasser Beshara, a Christian from the village of Kharaba. He was killed in the next-door province of Hawran, where he had been fighting for more than a year in the ranks of a Free Syrian Army rebel unit.

He was fatally wounded on Christmas Day and died before reaching a field hospital in Jordan, where he was eulogized as a “martyr” of the uprising.

Videos posted on YouTube detailed Beshara’s treatment in the field hospital, his funeral and burial. As the coffin is carried to a graveyard, the clip shows a number of men lean in to stroke Beshara’s beard to signal that they consider him a martyr and gain his blessing, despite the fact that he happens to be from another faith.

Days later, in the village of Qraya, two Druze cousins – Bassel and Khaldoun Shqair – were shot to death in an olive grove in an attack opposition media said was carried out by the shabbiha, or pro-regime militia.

On Jan. 3, Salah Sadeq, a 23-year-old Druze, was reportedly killed in Aleppo by a regime airstrike while engaged in relief work with children. Activists say that the authorities refused permission for his funeral in Swaida, but it took place Saturday nonetheless for around 10 minutes before gunfire and tear gas dispersed several hundred mourners.

Meanwhile, the FSA announced in mid-December that a Revolutionary Military Council had been formed for the governorate of Swaida.

In the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, with a heavily Druze and Christian population, the formation of a rebel FSA battalion was announced last week, in the name of the Druze.

FSA units claimed only a few attacks in Swaida province in December but an activist from the town says that there are many Druze fighting with the rebels, primarily in neighboring Hawran.

In recent days, pro-uprising Facebook pages have featured tributes to Druze army defectors from Swaida who are fighting with the FSA in other parts of the country, such as Idlib in the north, where one even commands a rebel unit.

The activist said that the upswing in protest activity in Swaida was a natural result of several months of military successes by armed rebels throughout Syria.

“Since mid-October, the armed opposition has been achieving new victories, which leads to a counter-reaction everywhere,” the activist said. “This is especially among people who haven’t taken a final decision to oppose the regime, and when they see this [performance by the rebels], it raises morale.”

The city of Swaida has a population of around 150,000, with almost the same number of people residing in towns and villages in the governorate. Another reason why the area has remained “quiet” is because its activists and general population have been busy hosting refugees. In Swaida, an estimated 15,000 people are registered locally with activists and roughly half are from the neighboring province of Hawran, with the rest coming from several different places: Homs, Idlib, Deir al-Zor and elsewhere.

“Although there is a camp for some of them, a great many are living among the population, in and around people’s homes,” the activist said.

The activist described Swaida as split roughly evenly between pro- and anti-regime sentiment, and a place where several complex calculations come into play.

He said many people have tried to avoid taking open stands either way “because it’s a place where everyone knows everyone,” and disputes over one’s political affiliation could easily spin out of control, generating unending vendettas.

The activist claimed the regime has been unsure about the loyalty of people in Swaida and hesitant to provoke them, “so as not to turn ‘the Druze’ against the regime en masse.”

“Even the shabbiha [paramilitaries] in Swaida aren’t that heavily armed,” he commented.

No one politician or party commands loyalty among the Druze community, he added, neither Lebanese Druze figures such as Walid Jumblatt nor Wi’am Wahhab – the former is anti-regime and the latter a fervent supporter of President Bashar Assad.

“Jumblatt doesn’t enjoy wide popularity, for various reasons, but people also rejected Wahhab’s attempts to form a political party here,” he said.

“Families are split, and sometimes it’s brother against brother.”

According to Muntaha al-Atrash, the daughter of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925, the silent majority in Swaida are becoming fed up with the rhetoric and actions of the regime.

“The regime played on sectarianism by scaring people, saying that the opposition were a bunch of Islamists,” she said.

“People are beginning to come around and realize that the regime is lying and engaged in criminal, obscene acts ... there’s also the fact that the shabbiha have recently stopped receiving money, which leads people to believe that the regime’s fortunes are declining.”

Late last month, Atrash issued a statement in which she spoke of the Druze community’s long bout of wavering over joining the uprising because of past accusations that the sect had a secret loyalty to foreign powers such as Israel.

“The Druze were hesitant about participating in the second Syrian revolt [of 2011], because they didn’t want to end up as the sacrificial lamb ... but they now know that the regime is falling and have realized that they must demand change, for the better,” she said.

The activist agreed that enthusiasm for joining the shabbiha is on the decline, citing the example of an acquaintance who recently returned his AK-47 to the Baath Party after several months of failing to get paid as a paramilitary.

Amid the tension, which has yet to erupt into bloodshed in Swaida, activists are busy coordinating relief efforts and engaging in non-violent protest activities. Female activists have been particularly busy, periodically taking to the streets to distribute leaflets denouncing the violence or staging sit-ins in broad daylight, inviting the wrath of the shabbiha.

Activists in Hawran and Swaida regularly post notice of support for each other, and against what they say is the regime’s attempts to provoke sectarian clashes. Several incidents of hostage-taking have occurred between the two regions, the latest one remaining unresolved until now.

“Somewhere around 10 people are being held by each side, people from Hawran in Swaida, and vice versa,” the activist said. “The regime is doing everything it can to prevent a successful resolution.”

On earlier occasions of tit-for-tat kidnapping, the intervention of civilian and religious figures has managed to secure releases and head off further repercussions.

The activist predicted that relations between Swaida and Hawran would remain calm due to their long history as neighbors and overlapping economic interests, primarily in the form of business partnerships.

However, he described a more tenuous situation in the Druze village of Jaramana, which is now an urban suburb of sprawling Greater Damascus and the scene of several horrific car bomb attacks in recent months. The activist said that either the FSA or the authorities could be responsible for the blasts, which have killed dozens of people.

“Jaramana is surrounded by Sunni suburbs and is of huge importance in controlling the area around the [Damascus] airport road,” he said. “Both the FSA and the regime would like to be able to control Jaramana, while the people there would prefer that either side pass through peacefully without destroying anything.”

As for the pro-uprising sentiment in Swaida, the region has seen upticks of pro-uprising activity on several occasions since March 2011. The biggest question is whether the latest round will be enough to push the Druze and Christians from Jabal al-Arab more forcefully into the ranks of the opposition, or see them remain a “silent majority” that is unenthusiastic about supporting either the regime or the rebels.

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