Would rising tension in As-Suwayda lead to autonomy?

A meeting between the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad and dignitaries from As-Suwayda - 13 November 2018 (the Syrian Presidency)

A meeting between the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad and dignitaries from As-Suwayda - 13 November 2018 (the Syrian Presidency)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Since last July, the As-Suwayda governorate has witnessed rapid developments on the ground, which coincided with armed clashes between kidnapping and drug-trafficking gangs and local factions, killing and wounding civilians from the region.   

Local factions in As-Suwayda claimed that the gangs’ members had security missions clearances from the Syrian regime’s intelligence services, and soon a new military force was established in the region under the name of the Anti-terrorism Force. This new military formation is an affiliate of the newly formed Syrian Brigade Party established by abroad opponents to the regime, provoking the anger of the regime-linked national defense militias in As-Suwayda.

Meanwhile, the As-Suwayda’s neighboring governorate of Daraa also saw military confrontations after regime forces cordoned Daraa al-Balad to storm it. Local political currents in As-Suwayda showed their solidarity with the besieged city, stressing that the regime is the main party responsible for all bloodshed in Syria.  

These developments sparked talks about a possible plan on establishing an autonomous region bringing the two governorates of Daraa and As-Suwayda, particularly in the absence of a clear Russian position regarding the latest escalation in Daraa, which was interpreted as a move by Russia to give the southern region a break from the regime’s authority.   

Who controls As-Suwayda?

In mid-July, a firefight broke out between two families from Shahba city in As-Suwayda countryside, leaving deaths and injuries from both sides. Local news networks on Facebook reported that the armed clashes in Shahba resulted in four deaths, including two victims from one family.

The online networks then shared images of documents found by locals inside one of the drug trafficking gangs’ vehicles, proving the vehicle’s ownership by the regime’s Air Force Intelligence. 

The regime security forces excluded themselves from the clashes that took place in Shahba city. Meanwhile, dignitaries linked to the regime tried to intervene to resolve the crisis peacefully between drug cartels and locals to restore the status quo while maintaining the presence of the cartels, but the elders of Shahba refused the proposal. 

The regime then stepped in to resolve the situation in the city of Shahba through the mediation of its security services, which was met by complete popular rejection, the local news website Suwayda 24 mentioned on 19 July.  

Enab Baladi contacted the spokesman of the Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC) Yahya al-Aridi, who is from As-Suwayda, to comment on the regime’s attempts to keep kidnapping and drug gangs in the governorate. Al-Aridi said that since the early days of the Syrian revolution, the regime has tried to depict itself as the “protector of religious minorities.”

Al-Aridi added that by claiming to be the protector of religious minorities, the regime was trying to divide Syrians and weaken them. Popular slogans such as “The Syrian people are united” that were chanted in regions of religious minorities like As-Suwayda during the Syrian uprising threatened the core of the regime’s security operations triggering sectarian tensions, which prompted it to resort to forming gangs and security committees. 

According to al-Aridi, the regime assigned these gangs with specific tasks, including kidnapping, killing, and running drug trafficking operations in As-Suwayda. Aided by Iran, the regime assassinated dignitaries from the governorate, including Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, then it intensified the activities of these gangs. 

In recent months, the regime has moved these lawless groups, primarily the National Defence militias, to face the “Syrian awakening,” but the residents of Shahba and al-Raha towns in As-Suwayda countryside have challenged the regime’s scheme and thwarted it, causing these gangs to be expelled from various regions. 

Syrian lawyer, Ayman Shaibeddin from As-Suwayda governorate, wrote on his Facebook account commenting on the latest events that the gangs active in the region “are not mere thugs grouped in lawless gangs. This description is far from truth and reality, and I would like to change it.”

He described the gangs as “security proxy groups” managed by the regime’s security services, all under a “hellish cunning scheme” that could hardly be proven, as the security services and their “media platforms” joined the Shahba residents uprising against the gangs. 

Is southern Syria heading towards self-rule?

Enab Baladi interviewed the political researcher at Jusoor for Studies Center, Wael Alwan, about the relation of the military clashes between the regime and Daraa city residents with the tense situation in As-Suwayda. Alwan said that the armed confrontations in Daraa reflect locals’ dissatisfaction at the regime’s handling methods with the southern Syrian governorates of As-Suwayda, Quneitra, and Daraa.

Alwan pointed out that autonomy in the Syrian south has become a popular demand that could be supported by regional and international parties like Russia and Israel, which have land borders with southern Syria.

During the past months, meetings were held between dignitaries from As-Suwayda and representatives of Daraa governorate, during which the issue of establishing autonomy in Syria’s southern governorates was discussed, Alwan reported on sources and reserved the right to mention details of the meeting for security reasons.

Alwan added that the regime is keen on preventing such moves in Syrian governorates, but the Russian acceptance would include the autonomy of southern Syria in the course of negotiations with Russia and approval in return for lifting the western economic blockade against the regime.   

According to Alwan, the autonomy project has caused the two governorates of Daraa and As-Suwayda to rise above previous skirmishes and contact international parties for support. These efforts have made the autonomy idea one of the options on the table to expel Iran from southern Syria. 

As for al-Aridi, he told Enab Baladi that it is unlikely that these efforts will be fruitful on the ground, excluding the possibility of reaching self-rule in the Syrian south.

Al-Aridi based his opinion on the fact that the regime’s practices reflect a complete absence of the concept of the state in return for “mafia methods” in dealing with the Syrian people. 

The role of As-Suwayda’s dignitaries

Prior to 2011, As-Suwayda was like any other region in Syria, governed by an alliance between the regime’s authority and local leaders.  

Karam Mansour, a Syrian journalist from As-Suwayda, told Enab Baladi in a previous report that after the Syrian revolution, Syrians dared to challenge the regime’s established taboos, such as discussing the country’s politics and future. The governorate of As-Suwayda supported the revolution, and many of its youth participated in the uprisings but were faced by the religious authority (religious Druze dignitaries).

He added, the situation remained the same until the Men of Dignity Movement was formed between 2013 and 2014 and promoted a slogan among people that they were neutral, adopting the principle of “prohibiting” attacks on the people of As-Suwayda and the participation of its population in the regime’s attacks against rebellious Syrians in other governorates. This movement used the force of arms to enforce its presence in the governorate.

Mansour said that all parties in As-Suwayda accepted the status quo, fearing the specter of war. Then, calls for national unity spread among people, denying any intention of secession from the government following demands by some components of the Syrian community for independence.

What characterized this period in As-Suwayda was the rejection of compulsory service and the grant of freedom and permission to leave the region to those who wish to fight alongside one of the conflict parties. This, in turn, prompted many people to join the movement.

From thence, the regime attempted to destabilize the situation in As-Suwayda by supporting law offenders who smuggled, kidnapped, and committed other crimes and violations.

The regime also activated the smuggling line through the Syrian Badia to transport materials such as fuel, arms, and drugs between As-Suwayda and Daraa, and those responsible for the smuggling operations were cooperating with the regime’s security authorities.

Since basic materials in As-Suwayda were imported from Damascus, officials in the Syrian capital imposed large royalties on checkpoints. These checkpoints provided cargo shipments’ workers with receipts to protect them against kidnapping after paying the royalties.

Despite the difficulties the governorate faced, it represented the largest freedom zone in Syria compared to other regions, as it housed a large number of civil activists and mandatory service evaders.

Influential families in As-Suwayda managed to keep security forces away from their sons, who today express their opinions within the boundaries of the regime governorate without being afraid of getting arrested.

Public awareness is also present among As-Suwayda residents regarding those involved in criminal offenses or felonies. Those do not receive protection or assistance from civil society or any intervention from dignitaries to help them if arrested.

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