Members of Syria’s Druze minority have helped repel a rebel attack on an army base in the south, mobilizing to confront insurgents who are trying to build on gains against President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that tracks the war, said Friday rebels had been driven from the base, which they had partly captured Thursday, by airstrikes and Druze fighters from nearby Swaida.
A Druze leader from Swaida said young men from the city had helped recapture the Thaaleh air base, which is used to shell areas of rebel-held Deraa province but is out of action as an airport. A rebel leader confirmed that the government side had sent reinforcements to the base.
The Druze have moved into the spotlight of the Syrian war this week, with advances by insurgents triggering statements of concern about their fate from both Israel’s president and the sect’s figures in Lebanon.
Some Druze leaders have warned of an existential threat facing their kin after Nusra Front fighters shot dead 20 people in a Druze village in northwestern Syria Wednesday – an incident ignited by Nusra’s attempt to confiscate a house.
The Ahrar al-Sham militia and four other factions Friday issued a statement denouncing the killing and pledging to prevent such incidents from happening again. They urged that the guilty parties be turned over to a neutral court for trial.
“Our weapons will only be used against those who commit crimes against our people, from among the regime and ISIS and those allied with them,” the statement said.Groups fighting to topple Assad say he is trying to exploit sectarian fear to shore up his support base. Bashar Zoubi, the head of a rebel group involved in the battle for the army base in Swaida, said those attempts would fail, adding that the Druze know the “regime is collapsing and cannot protect them.”
Insurgents battling Assad in southern Syria include the Nusra Front but also groups that do not share its jihadi ideology and are trying to calm Druze fears.
Insurgent groups have been advancing toward Swaida from the west and the east, where ISIS has been mounting sporadic attacks on army positions.
The Druze role was key in repelling the attack on the base, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
“If they hadn’t mobilized, [the insurgents] wouldn’t have been repelled,” he said. “There is a rebel retreat.”
The Druze leader, Sheikh Abu Khaled Shaaban, said young men from Swaida had deployed in several areas including the airport under the umbrella of the National Defense Force and “popular committees” that are battling alongside the Syrian army. State TVsaid dozens of Swaida residents had joined the army and NDF.
“Matters are heading toward calm and complete control of the situation,” Shaaban told Reuters by telephone from Syria.
Zoubi, the rebel leader, said the base remained in government hands Friday. But he added that there was “coordination between us and the sheikhs of Swaida” – a reference to community elders whom he did not identify.
Echoing comments from other, secular-leaning opposition groups in recent days, he said the Druze would be treated as Syrians with the same rights as other citizens.
The southern rebels, operating in a region just 100 kilometers from Damascus, seized a major army base Tuesday in Deraa province, building on victories including the capture of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan.
Druze in Israel have been lobbying for arms to be sent to Syria, a US official has said. Lebanese Druze politicians aligned with the Syrian government have also called for the arming of their kin in Syria.
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