Rebels target Druze province in Syria, seize military airbase

Published June 11th, 2015 - 08:00 GMT

Rebel groups in southern Syria pressed forward Wednesday with their offensive and targeted a military airport on the edge of the Druze-majority province of Swaida.

One day after overrunning the 52nd Brigade base in next-door Deraa, they vowed to seize the Thaaleh airport and surrounding villages, pounding the facility with mortar bombs and rockets which they said destroyed at least one tank.

The airport is not used by Syria’s air force but is a staging ground for artillery attacks on the rebel-held Deraa countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group, said a number of troops and paramilitaries were killed in the attack.

The campaign came as Nusra Front militants in northwest Idlib province clashed with Druze residents of the village of Qalb Lozeh, killing 20 of them, according to several anti-regime activist groups.

It was unclear what sparked the clashes, although some accounts said the Druze had attacked Nusra.

The Ahrar al-Sham militia intervened and halted the fighting, the activists said.

An Islamist source blamed a Tunisian Nusra commander for the “stupidity” of clashing with Idlib’s Druze, who reside in some 19 villages in the province.

In Swaida, the Druze community has been divided over how to react to the rebel gains in Deraa.

A leading Druze religious figure, Sheikh Hikmat Hajari, has urged young men in the province to join the ranks of the army, but the call has found few takers, according to several sources.

Another, midlevel religious figure, Sheikh Wahid Balous, commands the loyalty of the majority of residents of Swaida province, and has repeatedly advocated a neutral stance in the war.

Activists said that Balous’ followers on Wednesday commandeered a military convoy that was taking heavy weaponry toward the capital, in the second such incident in a week.

Balous issued a statement urging the Druze to mobilize to defend the province but said the rebels were apparently focused on attacking the Thaaleh airport, and not the nearby Druze village of that name.

Balous also urged residents to avoid being swayed by social media outlets that are trying to spread “fear and confusion.”

Balous’ followers have maintained a fierce campaign against conscription into the army, and have regularly confronted the authorities when young men are detained.

In Israel, President Reuven Rivlin voiced concern about “intimidation and [a] threat to the very existence of a half a million Druze ... which is very close to the Israeli border.”

He was speaking after a meeting with the US’ top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, although a US official told Reuters said that arming the Druze, despite Rivlin’s public assertion that the Druze of Israel have backed such a move, was not raised in the meeting, which dealt largely with the situation in Syria.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also commented on the developments, calling for a “reconciliation” between the Druze of Swaida and the residents of Deraa province. He issued a clarification, saying that the reconciliation he was calling for “is for protection, and a guarantee.”

By Marlin Dick

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