Anti-government violence erupts in Syria’s Suweida province, that had largely stayed on the sidelines of civil war.
Beirut, Lebanon – As thousands of people from Druze communities in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan gathered to pay their respects this week for slain Syrian Druze Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, the Druze of Syria are refusing to heed calls to rise up against the state.
On September 5, Balous, a popular anti-government Druze leader, had just finished eating lunch in a village in Syria’s southern Sweida governorate. A short time later, an explosion hit the convoy Balous was travelling in – killing him, his right-hand man, and several others.
As the victims were arriving at the government hospital, there was another blast at the hospital’s entrance. More than 25 people were killed and several dozen more were wounded in both bomb explosions. According to SANA, a Syrian state news agency, someone has since confessed to being responsible for the explosions and to belonging to the Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting to end the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Balous’ assassination shook the residents of Sweida, home to the largest Druze population in the country. Pro-opposition activists, leaders, and media outlets responded by calling for the Druze to rise up against the Syrian government, holding it responsible for the deadly act.
Yet, Druze on both sides of the country’s political divide are rejecting these calls and refusing to be dragged into what they consider to be a game orchestrated by external players.
The Druze leader gained popularity last year for his fiery rhetoric against government corruption. While Balous was considered to be anti-government, he also refused to side with the opposition despite many attempts to co-opt him as a Druze opposition leader.
The Druze of Syria are not political and don’t want to be in the spotlight.
His main grievances, which echoed the sentiments of many of Sweida’s residents, focused on power outages, fuel shortages, and the lack of adequate army protection of the province, especially following recent attacks launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Nusra Front.
Balous was also vocal against army conscription and provided protection to draft dodgers, even attacking both verbally and physically – his militia launched several attacks on checkpoints – the military police for attempting to arrest those evading the draft.
His argument, which resonated deeply among Sweida’s residents, was that Druze conscripts should not be sent to other provinces in the country, but rather, should remain in Sweida to defend their families.
His popularity expanded, and he established his own militia that was known as the Sheikhs of Dignity. But according to one Syrian source in Sweida, his militia amounted to little more than an armed neighbourhood watch group. “They never fought outside of Sweida, and they weren’t trained as proper fighters,” the source told Al Jazeera.
Despite his rhetoric, Balous, according to some analysts, never really crossed the line in terms of rallying people to revolt against the state. His rhetoric was much more focused on protecting the province and the Druze. This might explain why the government did not view him as a real threat and allowed him to continue his protests and have his own militia.
The hype of him being an anti-Assad figure was created more outside of Sweida by the Syrian opposition. Even when Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s prominent Druze leader, tried to co-opt Balous, his attempts failed.
While official figures are unknown, several sources from Sweida have put the number of fighters belonging to Balous’ militia anywhere between 500 and 1,000.
Meanwhile, about 8,000 Druze fighters are affiliated with around 10 pro-government militias, including the National Defence Forces, the Popular Committees, Dar al-Watan, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
However, other Druze in the area were not fully supportive of Balous. Some criticised his attacks on government checkpoints, and according to sources in Sweida, many questioned the absence of his militia when armed opposition groups launched a large-scale attack on the Thaaleh airbase in Sweida last June.
On some occasions, he would fight alongside the Syrian army, but at other times, he would attack government checkpoints.
Others questioned his political agenda. “He openly declared himself opposed to Israel, but his close relations with Israeli Druze who are linked to Israeli intelligence and the military establishment, raised fears that he might have been manipulated,” said one activist from Sweida, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “But at the same time, no one questioned Balous’ sincerity, honesty, and spontaneity – and his popularity definitely peaked following his assassination.”
Following Balous’ assassination, the situation has been “tensely calm”, according to Ayham Azzam, cofounder of Jouzour, an NGO based in Sweida.
“Immediately following the assassination, government security forces withdrew from the streets,” he told Al Jazeera. Balous supporters and activists took to the streets in the aftermath, vandalising a statue of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and damaging government property.
“The regime let people protest in order to release tensions, but no one – not even those who are against the government and those who are on the fence – wants the situation to escalate.”
Yet, this has not prevented others from trying to exploit the situation. Following Balous’ death, in neighbouring Lebanon, Jumblatt, a vocal critic of the Syrian government, called on Sweida’s residents to rise up against the state, accusing Assad of being behind the assassination and saying such an act would shift the balance in Sweida.
In an interview with Orient TV, a pro-opposition Syrian news outlet, Jumblatt said: “It’s time for the honourable citizens of Sweida to rise up in the face of the Syrian regime that wants repression and to spread sedition.”
Meanwhile, the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition declared Sweida to be “liberated” and called for immediate intervention by the international community to protect the citizens of Sweida against retaliation from the Syrian government. But such statements have been dismissed by Sweida’s residents.
“Jumblatt has no relevance in Sweida; his ideas are not accepted by us. Our livelihoods are dependent on the Syrian state,” said Azzam. “We don’t want people trying to manipulate the situation for their own gains.”
“What Jumblatt is doing is putting the Druze of Syria in a very precarious and dangerous situation,” said one Sweida resident. “The Druze of Syria are not political and don’t want to be in the spotlight. Sweida has long stayed out of the conflict, and his repeated attempts to drag us in actually makes the situation of the Druze much worse.”
Sweida’s Druze, according to many analysts, are unlikely to let the most recent unrest create friction between themselves; those who support the government and those who support the opposition are from the same families.
Furthermore, whether they support the government or not, after having witnessed how armed opposition groups treated minority groups in other areas of Syria, the Druze are even more afraid of the opposition.
According to Tobias Long, a researcher and analyst on minorities in the Middle East, the Druze have limited options moving forward. “It’s too early to tell how the situation will play out; the relationship between the Druze and the government won’t improve after this because most will accuse the regime of being behind the assassination,” he told Al Jazeera. “But on the other hand, there is no other real choice for the Druze of Sweida.”
This view was echoed by the Sweida residents with whom Al Jazeera spoke. “It doesn’t matter how the opposition tries to paint the government,” one resident said. “It’s not out of love for the government that Sweida residents are behind it; it is out of complete fear of the opposition.”