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The August events in Suwaida and their implications

Wednesday 15 October 2014

After a period of relative calm in the overwhelming Druze province of Suwaidaʾ the situation dramatically changed in the middle of last August. The villages of Dama (and Dair Dama) were attacked by a group of local Bedouin.

Al Monitor reported that the attack came after local NDF members had responded with targeting Bedouin gatherings to the beheading of a Druze man. The Bedouin were allegedly joined by rebel elements, according to some reports from al-Qaʿida affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra. The number of the casualties on the Druze side differs from 12 to 24 and reportedly includes a high number of religious sheikhs (according to opposition outlet Zaman alWasl even seven). Harming religious people (ʿuqqal) is generally a red line for the Druze. This was illustrated in April 2014, when the arrest of a sheikh led to rare public protests in Suwaida and temporary a precarious situation for the regime. However, as Aymenn al-Tamimi has pointed out over at Syria Comment, the local Jaysh al-Muwahhidin militias are (I would add mostly) composed of sheikhs - therefore the high number of the latter among the casualties is easily explained.

A multidimensional conflict

It is important to note, that the attack was led by local Bedouins who were most likely only joined by elements of Jabhat an-Nusra or other groups. Therefore we should see the events of August in the context of a long pending conflict between (Druze) peasants and (Sunni) Bedouin. Secondly, this "classic" peasantry-Bedouin conflict obviously has also a sectarian dimension, due to the fact that the religious affiliation of both groups is clear cut. Thirdly, while the roots of the conflict are older, it had been again ignited by the civil war.

Whereas in 2011 the first anti-regime protests were in Daraʿ, Suwaidaʾ, with it’s Druze majority and small Christian and Bedouin minority, is until now seen as a regime stronghold.

Roots of the conflict: The year 2000 [1]

What I describe above as a classical peasantry-Bedouin conflict - i.e. Bedouin sheeps penetrating cultivation areas because of a dry period - turned deadly in the year 2000. Five to ten were killed and 150 to 200 wounded - most of them Druze - in clashes during that period. The 2000 conflict also clearly had sectarian features e.g. when a Druze graveyard was desecrated. The situation turned out the be the first real test for newly "elected" president Bashar al-Assad, who sent tanks to the province to enforce calm. To prevent a spreading of the conflict to the greater Damascus area, where a big share of Syria’s Druze population lives, the regime closed the main road between Suwaidaʾ and Damascus. Analogous, in August 2014 Suwaida was cut off from the internet. Overall in 2000 the regime succeeded in freezing the conflict - especially because it was able to use its influence over the religious leadership.

It seems that after 2000 a widespread feeling of bitterness remained in Suwaidaʾ. Most of the casualties had been Druze and the regime was rather trying to calm the situation, than clearly siding with the Druze. As a consequence of the 2000 unrest, the regime and co-opted leaders increased control at all levels to a degree, which led to a brain drain to Damascus or overseas.

"Rebel" Daraʿ and "regime" Suwaidaʾ

When the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad turned into an armed uprising it quickly became clear that the majority of both populations were on opposing sides: It was in Sunni Daraʿ where the anti-regime protests started and were brutally oppressed, while in Suwaidaʾ no large scale anti-regime activity was taking place. Even though the Druze religious leadership, especially the three mashaykh al-ʿaql, refrained from publicly voicing strong support for the regime, the Druze population became the target of kidnappings by rebel forces in Daraʿ. Although shaykh al-ʿaql al-Hinnawi had succeeded in negotiating an exchange of hostages with elders from the neighboring province and emphasized the historical ties between the two entities, the kidnappings have never fully stopped. These, together with sporadic rebel activity in Suwaidaʾ, especially in the border region, has contributed to a far-reaching animosity between Sunnis and Druze. In response to the attack on Dama, Bedouins have reportedly been driven out of several villages in Suwaidaʾ.

The Druze demand weapons

Hundreds assembled in Suwaidaʾ city demanding weapons from the regime to fight against the Bedoun. The demand was also supported by at least one of three mashaykh al-ʿaql. Armament of Druze militias was denied by the regime, which hinted that the Syrian army is free for everyone to join.

Against widespread belief it turns out to be clear, that the Druze population of Suwaidaʾ is not under arms. Existing militias, which are mostly operating under the NDF umbrella, appear to be overstated concerning their manpower (it’s no coincidence that most pictures of Jaysh al-Muwahhidin are from the Jabal Shaykh region and not from Suwaidaʾ). It is true that there are militias set up by some sheikhs but they are reportedly only possessing light weapons i.e. most likely some Kalashnikov rifles.

The regime’s refusal of arming the Druze of Suwaidaʾ raises suspicion about its attitude towards the Druze. A militarized Druze body is not wanted - simply because the Druze sheikhs are not considered loyal enough. The events of April, when Druze sheikhs protested in Suwaidaʾ, have clearly illustrated that Druze loyalty is not for granted.

One doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict, that the lack of military support will not contribute to increase the regime’s popularity in Suwaidaʾ. My assumption that this is the low point in regime-Druze relations since 2011 is supported by the fact, that al-Assad’s staunchest Druze ally felt so devastated, that he voiced his retreat from Syrian politics. We are talking about Wiʾam Wahhab of course.

Wiʾam Wahhab "quits Syria" and is brought back by ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din

The activities of Lebanese politician of Wiʾam Wahhab and his Arab Tawhid Party in Syria have been a subject on this blog before. It was this rather marginal Lebanese party, which last year officially acknowledged it’s activities in Syria as the second Lebanese party to do so (the first was Hizballah of course).

On more than one occasion before the August events, Wahhab had threatened with arming the Druze of Suwaidaʾ if they were attacked. When the public demand for weapons was voiced after the attack, he couldn’t deliver. He even desperately tried to involve Lebanon’s Druze leaders Walid Junblat and Talal Arslan - an attempt which was rejected out of hand. Wahhab voiced his retreat from the Syrian scene to save his face and keep some reliability. In fact he declared that after the death of four members of the Tawhid Party during the attack on Dama his party will stop its activities in Syria and close its offices.

Major Gen. ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din (middle)

What happened next is truly remarkable. The regime - my assumption - recognized that it still needs Wahhab, because he is the most reliable Druze leader. If he is gone, who knows who will fill the vacuum? To calm the situation in Suwaidaʾ and to iron out the differences with Wahhab, the regime draw for the only other trusted prominent worldly Druze, ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din, a Major General of the Republican Guard and native of Suwaidaʾ. Zahar ad-Din has the reputation of a warhorse and has fought on nearly every major frontline of the civil war. He enjoys broad popularity in pro-regime circles, especially among Druze. In 2013 the General was singled out by a group of minor Druze clerics, as someone who deserves death - a very unusual step. He currently commands the airport of Dair az-Zur, an enclosed enclave besieged by the Islamic State. The fact that he appeared in Suwaidaʾ, wearing civilian clothes caused suspicion that Assad might had given up Dair az-Zur. However, it became quickly obvious that the General was neither on a courtesy visit nor on furlough but mediating on behalf of Assad. At the end Wahhab declared to open his party offices again and everything returned to business as usual - at least for the moment.

Wahhab with Zahar ad-Din in Suwaidaʾ and Wahhab after his "return" flanked by two mashaykh al-ʿaql Hikmat al-Hajari (left) and Yusuf Jarbuʿ (right)

A rather pessimistic outlook

The situation in Suwaidaʾ will get worse, because some Druze will seek revenge after the attack on Dama where several sheikhs were killed. There are reportedly both, members of the clergy and (minor) worldly leaders, who encourage such desire. To make things worse, two weeks after the attack on Dama a roadside bomb targeted a coach on the road between Dama and ʿAriqa. According to pro-regime media five civilians were killed and more wounded.

It will strongly depend on shaykh al-ʿaql al-Hinnawi’s ability and willingness, if a military mobilization among the Druze can be contained in the time to come. A mobilization would lead to an escalation of the situation between Daraʿ and Suwaidaʾ. So far a more moderate line seems to have gained the upper hand, also because a further escalation is not in the regime’s interest. This might be mostly due to the fact that the men of Suwaidaʾ are badly needed on the front lines all over the country.

The Druze in Suwaidaʾ don’t feel only threatened by Jabhat an-Nusra from Daraʿ in the west but also by the Islamic State from the desert in the east. Even though the latter fear is mere diffuse and used by media close to the regime to keep the Druze in line. The Islamic State itself has other priorities for now and there is no evidence of its activity in Suwaidaʾ.

The Dama events have brought ʿIssam Zahar ad-Din into politics, by now one can not tell if his mediation was a single action or the start of a communal career but it is clear that he is a potential political force to be reckoned with. It is also obvious that Wiʾam Wahhab is not coming out empowered of the whole affair. His image is certainly seriously damaged, which suggests that the already existing power vacuum among the Syrian Druze will only widen. The current situation poses an opportunity for figures from traditional families like al-Atrash and especially religious sheikhs other than the mashaykh al-ʿaql to gain more influence. A man to look out for is sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balus, who has emerged as a counterweight to the mashaykh al-ʿaql during the protests in April and seems to be somewhat of a milita leader as well.

Newly emerged Druze leader sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balus (video via Rami Abou Diab)

* Tobias Lang is a political analyst based in Vienna, Austria and writes the blog MENA Minorities"



[1] I’m following Birgit Schäbler’s account of the 2000 events; see Schäbler, Birgit: Constructing an Identity between Arabism and Islam: The Druzes in Syria, in: The Muslim World, Volume 103, Issue 1, pages 62–79, January 2013.

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