Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

As-Suwayda: Between the Regime, the Opposition and the Sect

A Syrian villager attends a welcoming ceremony for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Sweida, 100 kms south of Damascus, on Septamber 4, 2009. Louai Beshara / AFP

Hussein Alzoubi                                                                                                                   

The southern Syrian governorate of As-Suwayda has topped the scene lately following the protests, mainly fuelled by the deteriorating living conditions in Syria and the already poor As-Suwayda in particular.

The mountainous governorate has limited agricultural areas and scarce trade centres. Like Daraa, it is a rural city but with minor groundwater sources.

For these reasons, a considerable percentage of its people chose to expatriate, mainly to Venezuela. At the same time, the broader segment relied on office jobs that could no longer prevent the destitution after the collapse of the Syrian lira, as salaries currently do not exceed $40. Perhaps this economic situation is one of the reasons why kidnapping for ransom has spread in the governorate.

The sensitivity of the regime and the opposition

As usual, the regime seemed suspicious about the peaceful protests for livelihood. Thus, it intensified its security inside the city and sent military forces to its countryside, which was already heavily armed with military equipment used to strike its western neighbour, Daraa.

On the other hand, the opposition had brought the protests to bear what they could not as they considered it a classical revolution. There was also a gloating tendency that can be seen evident on social media, which has become one of the means of reflecting Syrian public opinion.

Some insinuated that the economic deterioration in As-Suwayda is because of the regime it did not rise up against, as many Syrian cities did. Therefore, it has to pay the price for its loyalty. However, As-Suwayda was neither a supporter nor an adversary to the regime. The revolutionary affiliation was limited to individual attempts, such as intellectuals and a few soldiers, like Khaldoun Zain al-Din, who was fighting the regime in Daraa and was killed there.

As-Suwayda did not take part in the revolutionary action due to the nature of the regime and the way it dealt with protests since 2011, and for the image it presented of the peaceful movement and the nature of the movement itself, which later took violent paths.

Jabr al-Shoufi, who is from As-Suwayda, claims that one of the reasons for the governorate’s lack of involvement in the movement against Assad is “the immaturity of the objective and subjective factors of the revolution. The dominating nature of spontaneity and rurality has led it to be limited to the Sunni social majority, engorged with rebellions stored since the 1960s and 1980s, and with sectarian hatred against the authority of an Alawite factional nature.”

“These sectarian confrontations floated on the political consciousness at the societal bottom of all non-Sunni sects. The movement of these sects was limited to the political and youth elites who had no choice but to stand with their people, regardless of their belief in the possibility of victory”, he added.

The journalist, Fakhruddin Fayyad, also from As-Suwayda, has reported his observations about what was happening in As-Suwayda and its neighbour Houran in the spring of 2012. He says, “Despite the killing, intimidation and devastation that are spread in many cities and villages throughout Daraa, the people look with a patriotic civil eye to the religious, sectarian and ethnic diversity in Syria, and there is no problem with their Druze neighbours, for example.”

He also quotes the residents of the neighbouring province: “They are our people and neighbours, we hope that the mountain will rise to support the revolution, but we excuse them. We know that the regime is clinging to minorities now, and it is putting its weight in their areas so that those cities do not escape from its control. It wants its sectarian lie to be believed by someone.”

He adds, “In As-Suwayda, a social incubator for the revolution was not formed because of the fear of the brutal repression practised by the regime from the beginning; it wanted to convey a message to all groups of the Syrian people that they are destined to be killed. The message has reached the Syrian society’s religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities, and even its class minorities, the merchants of Aleppo and Damascus, for example. The Druze got the message at the time. They obeyed the system for fear of a killing machine that a humanitarian or national standard would not deter. Perhaps they wanted a change without paying the price.”

The Druze are the dominant sect in the city. And some sources refer to it as an Arab esoteric ethnoreligious group with Abrahamic and monotheistic beliefs and esoteric teachings that began as an Isma’ili movement in the Fatimid state in the 10th century. According to the sources, the Druze reveres Prophet Shuaib, one of the Arab prophets, whom they consider the spiritual founder and prominent prophet of the monotheism doctrine.

Some researchers say it is based on the teachings of Hamzah bin Ali bin Ahmed and the sixth Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and that it was founded during the reign of al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah in 1020 by Muhammad bin Ismail al-Darzi. However, others mentioned that the actual founder was Hamza bin Ali bin Muhammad Al-Zawzani, who wrote its religious books. They claim that the two men had split up, so al-Darzi emigrated to the Levant, and the sect was named after him, yet the Druze do not prefer this kinship.

Armed Neutrality

As-Suwayda has taken a situation that we can call armed neutrality due to the development and complexity of the field situation, with ISIS taking the lead in the scene. This armed neutrality was represented in two cases. The first is forming armed groups that the regime has no control over. These groups’ mission is to protect As-Suwayda from any attack it might face from ISIS or others. The most famous group was known as “Regal al-Karama” (Men of Dignity), which accused the regime of assassinating its founder Wahid al-Balous. The group stuck to this approach by neither clashing with the regime’s forces in As-Suwayda, nor with the Free Army factions in the neighbouring Daraa.

The second case is the aversion of many young people in the governorate from enrolling in the mandatory military service outside their governorate.

The regime was not satisfied with what was going on in the governorate, but it had no choice but to give it special treatment for many reasons. The first was that it could not bear to expand the southern front, as its war against As-Suwayda meant that the three southern governorates (Daraa, Quneitra, and As-Suwayda) would become one front, which would put the regime in a very critical situation and expose Damascus’ back.

Moreover, targeting As-Suwayda, which represents a stronghold for the “Druze minority”, would make it lose the pretext of protecting minorities. Perhaps the most important reason is to provoke the anger of the Druze in Israel, as they constitute a weight in the Israeli forces, especially in the Golan region, and have close family relations with the Druze in As-Suwayda. That was obvious in the visit of the head of the Druze sect in Israel, Sheikh Muwaffaq Tarif, to Moscow recently to convey the demands of the protesters in the As-Suwayda to the Russian leadership, considering that Russia is the first active state in the areas controlled by the Syrian regime.

The religious and traditional leaders did not take any side regarding the recent protests, which, of course, decreased in pace because they did not receive any support from clerics, except for Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri. Some pro-regime leaders blamed the economic crisis for the sanctions imposed on the regime, while others talked about a conspiracy! Yet, the organisers of the protests insist on continuing even if the momentum that would bring the change they want in their economic reality is not achieved.

The matter did not end in As-Suwayda, as is the case in all matters related to Syria, which can bear all scenarios.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles