Ali Darwish | Khaled Jar’atli| Hussam al-Mahmoud|Rayan al-Atrash
Many local forces overlap in the southern governorate of As-Suwayda. At the same time, security branches, armed groups, and gangs are trying to impose themselves on the ground and be a player in what is to come for the governorate’s future. The presence of multiple forces in As-Suwaya could lead to temporary clashes that people fear could become permanent.
Security tension escalated this year, at times turning into armed clashes and mutual kidnappings between the military parties.
The Syrian regime does not militarily control the governorate, which has not experienced actual military operations since the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011. However, its security services do hold sway over As-Swaya via local gangs and its support of the National Defence Militia.
Influential countries in Syria have not taken their eyes off As-Suwayda either. They supported the formation of militias while some countries tried to win over the minds of the Druze sect’s sheikhs, who enjoyed great social status and a significant role in solving the governorate’s crises.
In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi attempts to disentangle the field reality and the security structure of the armed factions and groups in the southern governorate. It also postulates the future of the local and international conflict, discusses the possible tools to prevent military conflict, and analyzes the factors that prevented the Syrian regime from using military force in As-Swayuda.
Military map: Who controls what?
Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, the Syrian regime has worked to sow internal disputes between the people of the two neighbours, Daraa and As-Suwayda and among the people of As-Suwayda themselves, in an attempt to isolate them from the popular uprising that first erupted in Daraa 2011.
Since 2011, the Syrian regime has worked relentlessly to isolate As-Suwayda from the popular uprising by recruiting armed groups in its security services.
With the rapid pace of events in the region, these groups turned into gangs that carried out kidnappings, robberies, and assassinations. Some gangs announced their affiliation to the security services; moreover, their members possess security cards that allow them to move freely within the governorate.
In parallel, other armed groups such as the Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity), Anti-Terrorism Force, the Ghayara al-Qaria Group and others, were formed. They said that their goal is to counter those gangs and maintain the security of As-Suwayda and its civilian residents.
Under the control of security services
In the middle of last July, a dispute arose between two families in the city of Shahba in the countryside of As-Suwayda, which resulted in deaths and injuries on both sides, reported local networks. This dispute led to popular outrage that triggered a military campaign by the city’s residents against those gangs that had fled the city.
The networks also published pictures of papers and documents that the residents found inside a car belonging to one of the drug-trafficking gangs in the governorate. This car seemingly belonged to the Air Force Intelligence.
Notables and influential figures from the Syrian regime side attempted to mediate and solve the dispute flared between gangs believed to be dealing with drug trafficking and the residents of the areas peacefully. They also worked to bring the situation back to the status quo ante and maintain the presence of the gangs in the city. However, the notables of Shahba city rejected the proposal, according to a statement published by Suwayda 24 on 19 May.
This incident opened the eyes of many people to the fact that armed groups and gangs are scattered in As-Suwayda and its countryside in association with the security services.
Apparently, the gangs expelled from the city of Shahba were affiliated with the branch of the Air Force Intelligence, while Falhout Gang, which orchestrates kidnappings for ransom and drug dealing, is linked with the Military Intelligence. Falhout consists of 30 fighters; they are paid monthly around 200-400 thousand Syrian pounds(1 USD=3,515).
The gang members own a variety of light and medium weapons as well as vehicles equipped with machine guns and ammunition depots spread in its main stronghold in the town of Atil, north of As-Suwayda.
The gang is led by Raji Falhout, who announced his affiliation with the Military Intelligence Division through his personal account on Facebook. He then returned to delete the post later.
Falhout gang is notorious for cutting the As-Suwayda-Damascus road, placing checkpoints, searching civilians, inspecting fuel tank trucks coming from Damascus and stealing quantities of the fuel they were transporting.
Civilians from As-Suwayda, interviewed by Enab Baladi, accuse this gang of being responsible for many kidnappings for ransom, in addition to killings, thefts, and distributing drugs among the people of the governorate.
Meanwhile, another armed group led by a person named Salim Hamid is stationed in the village of Qanawat, adjacent to the town of Atil, that supports the Raji Falhout group.
It has about 50 fighters. It also owns light, medium and heavy weapons, in addition to four-wheel-drive vehicles and weapons depots spread in its area of influence.
The affiliation of this gang is still unknown and undeclared, but the residents of Qanawat village contacted by Enab Baladi accuse this gang of being affiliated with the Russian forces. This is because members of this gang move freely inside and outside As-Suwayda. Moreover, they visited the Syrian coast, which is under the absolute control of the Syrian regime and has the Hmeimim airbase, operated by the Russian military command.
The most infamous gang associated with the Syrian regime in northeastern As-Suwayda is a gang led by Fadia al-Andari, based in the village of al-Taiba.
As-Suwayda residents accuse the al-Andari gang, which is close to the branch of Military Intelligence, of many thefts and kidnappings in the governorate.
In the city of As-Suwayda, mainly the governorate center, there are many gangs supported by the security branches, such as the gang of Mizhar. This gang is led by the brothers Rami and Muhannad Mizhar.
The gang is involved in carrying out several kidnappings in the governorate center. Three months ago, these gang members kidnapped the young Majd al-Abdullah for a ransom of nearly 250,000 USD in exchange for his release.
The Anti-Terrorism Force (ATF) arrested one of the gang members involved in the kidnapping of Majd al-Abdullah, to broadcast his confessions later, in which he revealed the names of the rest of the kidnappers, including Rami and Muhannad Mizhar.
The Mizhar gang owns light and medium weapons and vehicles equipped with machine guns and is stationed in the center of the city of As-Suwayda. It also has several farms that have been fortified recently, as tension has mounted in the city.
Hezbollah affiliated gangs
A gang, led by Nasser al-Saadi, from the city of Salkhad, is actively operating in southern As-Suwayda. The gang consists of 50 fighters armed with light and medium weapons and cars equipped with machine guns.
The people of the area accuse the members of this gang of being affiliated with the Syrian regime and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Civilians from Salkhad, met by Enab Baladi, confirmed that Nasser al-Saadi has a close relationship with the head of the Military Security detachment in the city of Salkhad, nicknamed “Abu Shuaib.”
The al-Saadi gang is engaged in trafficking narcotic drugs and hashish into the Kingdom of Jordan through the southern lands of As-Suwayda, in partnership with known smugglers in the region, including Mar’i Rowaished al-Ramthan, who hails from the village of al-Shaab, east of As-Suwayda, and Faris Saymuea, who is from the village of Arman, adjacent to the city of Salkhad.
Members of the al-Saadi gang work under the protection of the security services in As-Suwayda, and smuggling operations to Jordan run with the help of Syrian border posts along the border with Jordan.
National Defense Forces (NDF)
Like all Syrian governorates, the Syrian regime-linked National Defense Forces (NDF) are among the most prominent irregular factions in As-Suwayda. The NDF took over the house of opposition media personality Faisal al-Qasim, located in the street of Qanawat, and used it as its headquarters.
The NDF owns many vehicles equipped with machine guns. It is noteworthy that the fighters’ monthly salaries have been cut off for more than a year. However, most of its fighters continue to provide their services because of the conditions laid down, such as the requirement to give up their weapons if they want to leave the faction.
The NDF commander, Rashid Salloum, does not hold any military rank, some people, who have close ties with him, told Enab Baladi. Salloum has close relations with the Iranian embassy in Damascus and with the security services.
The NDF has recently become headline news in As-Suwayda after a clash erupted between its members and the Anti-Terrorism Force. Moreover, the Anti-Terrorism Force confiscated a number of its vehicles armed with machine guns, following tension between the two sides in the village of al-Harisi, east of As-Suwayda.
The mysterious Anti-Terrorism Force
The Anti-Terrorism Force was formed at the beginning of this year. The force declared itself as a military movement opposing the Syrian regime in As-Suwayda. The Anti-Terrorism Force became the military wing of the Syrian al-Liwa Party in As-Suwayda.
Journalist Nawras Aziz, from As-Suwayda, said that there is a blackout on the Anti-Terrorism Force’s funding sources. The force also takes advantage of the appalling economic condition suffered by most youth of As-Suwayda by recruiting them for salaries between 200,000 and 400,000 SYP, especially since a large part of the governorate’s youth, amounting to 43,000 persons, did not join the compulsory military service in the army since 2014.
According to a statement published on its official Facebook account, the force says that the governorate residents established it after the security services did not fulfill their role to promote security, stability and safety throughout the governorate. Moreover, the security situation worsened considerably; kidnappings, killings and robberies repeatedly occurred, in addition to the increasing spread of narcotic drugs.
There has been much talk among the people of As-Suwayda that the force was supported by the US-led Global Coalition against Daesh, especially after the force’s military confrontations with NDF members.
According to unconfirmed information, the Anti-Terrorism Force has numbered 1,000 fighters and is led by Samer al-Hakim.
Men of Dignity: largest and most famous movement in As-Suwayda
The Men of Dignity Movement is considered one of the largest local military factions in As-Suwayda; it consists of 2,000 fighters, distributed in several areas of As-Suwayda governorate.
The movement was founded in 2013 by Sheikh Wahid al-Balous (Abu Fahd). Abu Fahd, a prominent political and spiritual leader of Syria’s Druze community, was killed in September 2015 in what reports said was a car bomb attack. The Assad government was accused of killing Balous.
The movement adopted a position of neutrality in internal conflict, especially after Yahya al-Hajjar, nicknamed “Abu Hussein,” assumed the movement’s leadership.
Many people in As-Suwayda believe that even though the movement consistently stated that it would not deviate from the principles of Wahid al-Balous, it has deviated and has neutralized and disassociated itself from the security chaos in the governorate. The movement only takes action when one of its members is exposed to a security threat or gets into a scrap.
Journalist Nawras Aziz described the movement as the most neutral faction in the governorate, except in the last case; a clash took place with Raji Falhout in Atil. The movement had to intervene due to the pressure exerted by its members. This was not a decision made by the leadership.
It is noteworthy that this movement enjoys the support of almost all As-Suwayda residents, and especially its youth.
Other local armed factions have spread in As-Suwayda. They claim neutrality and are distributed between the countryside and the city. They are made up of some of As-Suwayda’s people. They have very few fighters, and they claim to purchase their weapons using money from their own pockets.
Imminent military clash: Where does the solution lie?
With the increasing local clashes between the formations of the Anti-Terrorism Force, National Defense Forces (NDF), and armed gangs, local writer Samer al-Musfi sees that the governorate’s future is heading towards a military clash.
An alliance and a convergence of interests between the Anti-Terrorism Force and the Men of Dignity of Movement appear to eliminate gangs, according to Samer al-Musfi.
But in the long run, Iran, which supports armed groups and has close ties with the NDF, will not accept this situation and will most likely try to escalate the conflict.
It can be expected that Iran will pursue a policy of assassinations and car bombs, especially if it loses the smuggling lines towards Jordan.
“The governorate’s future depends on a regional consensus and a balanced Russian role. It is clear that after Iran is done with the Daraa issue, it will increase its weight in As-Suwayda, and this is what Iranian officials literally said to one of the Sheikh al-Aql members, Samer al-Musfi.
Journalist Nawras Aziz, who is familiar with the events of As-Suwayda, supported Samer al-Musafi’s view. He said that the future of the governorate in light of the presence of various military forces, including those with support from abroad, security chaos, and the massive spread of weapons might lead at any moment to an internal clash.
Journalist Nawras Aziz told Enab Baladi that since 2012 and 2013, weapons began to flood the governorate. This led to the emergence of “dozens of factions and hundreds of mercenaries.”
There is now a large variety of military forces due to the presence of weapons and the worsening economic situation.
What does the governorate need to prevent clashes?
As-Suwayda governorate needs to get out of the current state of tension, avoid a military clash, unify the arms and establish a local military force agreed upon by all the families of the mountain in order to reach a Syrian solution that includes all areas, according to Nawras Aziz.
Nawras Aziz pointed out that As-Suwayda community is a semi-tribal family. In this case, “customs, traditions and practices have a greater impact than the official law,” due to the weakness of the security services and their inability to control many areas in Syria.
Samer al-Musfi believes that there must be a social reference at the level of the entire governorate, which includes the active forces in society (Sheikh al-Aql, influential clerics, dignitaries, family leaders), community leaders (intellectuals and trade unionists) and civil society forces (organizations and influential activists).
A domestic civil coalition must be formed to serve as a supreme political reference, under which all factions fall, with the aim of “legalizing the firearms possession, playing a political role by the social reference in deciding the fate of the governorate and speaking on its behalf before regional and international powers.”
What about influential countries?
Samer al-Musfi indicates that “It is difficult to say that the decision to spare As-Suwayda a military clash is in the hands of its people.” The current conflict “is of a regional and even international nature, and is linked to conflicting agendas.”
Iran imposes a military presence in the south at the expense of Russian influence, which has led to the rearrangement of the region within “compromises” with the Israelis and the Americans.
Recently, there seems to be a Saudi-Israeli-French intervention aimed at changing these “compromises” by creating and arming the “so-called Anti-Terrorism Force,” according to Samer al-Musfi.
This intervention seeks two main things:
First, it aims to control the smuggling business of the Lebanese Hezbollah (Drug trafficking). This is precisely what is happening now; the Anti-Terrorism Force has recently wrested complete control of the entire smuggling lines of the eastern villages from the Iran-linked NDF.
Second, the intervention works to eliminate all armed factions and gangs in the governorate under the slogan “combating terrorism.”
Thus, the Anti-Terrorism Force is to remain the only military force, according to al-Musfi.
Al-Musfi considers “its alliance today with the Men of Dignity movement temporary, nothing more.”
Where is the role of the Sheikh al-Aql?
Sheikh al-Aql has no “central and essential role in politics because it has no significant political weight,” Samer al-Musfi believes.
However, it still has a relatively crucial social role because it does impact a few segments of the As-Suwayda community.”
The Sheikh al-Aql has a popular base, but it lacks political or tribal alliances to bind its decisions.
Recently, it seems that the relationship of Sheikh al-Aql with Damascus has been strained. This tension can be noted through Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri’s recent statement. Al-Hijri, “who is known for his close ties with the Syrian regime,” expresses solidarity with the residents of Daraa.
On the other hand, Iran continuously attempts to lure Sheikh al-Aql Youssef Jarbou and keep him away from the Russians.
Why is the regime avoiding its traditional military style?
The field reality in As-Suwayda suggests that this governorate is not on the Syrian map because the Syrian regime deals with its people differently, taking into account that it falls within its areas of influence. Furthermore, the governorate saw peaceful protests that called for the overthrow of the Syrian regime, the last of which was last year.
Despite all these, the regime did not show its usual reaction by resorting to a security solution, as in Daraa, for example, or the rest of the Syrian governorates.
The military researcher at the Syrian Foundation for Studies and Public Opinion Research, Captain Rashid Mahmoud Hourani, believes that the regime relied on the concept of proxy war in As-Suwayda. This, he said, is due to “the cohesive social structure of the governorate which is made up of the Druze component known for its internal cohesion.”
The Syrian regime intends to disturb this social cohesion in the governorate by infiltrating it with the factions it supports, with the presence of other factions that are not satisfied with the regime and its policy. Thus, the regime counts on internal clashes, thereby weakening both sides without expending its own resources.
The researcher believes that the Syrian regime is not satisfied with its affiliate factions because they accept what the religious authorities decide, even if they collide with the regime’s ideas.
The regime had previously tried to ignite fighting between the two neighbours, Daraa and As-Suwayda, through using the indirect strategic approach (proxy war). The regime used the proxy war in the governorate and directed this approach to the border areas and villages between the two sides.
Hourani believes that the local factions fighting and opposing the regime played and continues to play an essential role in As-Suwayda in deterring the regime from implementing its plans to subjugate the governorate, for several reasons, most notably, according to the researcher:
- The factions, including those backed by the Syrian regime, agreed unanimously not to cause any harm or damage to the governorate, which the regime seeks to inflict in all Syrian regions.
- The Syrian regime’s institutions in the governorate failed to perform their duties related to providing services to citizens, maintaining their security, and implementing the law.
Thus, the factions deal with the regime from this point, which is that “ a party that fails to perform its duties does not have the right to ask for recognition from the other party.”
The local military groups “opposing the Syrian regime” in As-Suwayda are aware that the regime is trying to return to the governorate gradually.
Most factions in the governorate depend on somewhat separate funding sources (the Druze of Palestine and Lebanon). Also, ten years of war have severely depleted the Syrian regime forces. On the other hand, many parties attempt to extend their influence over As-Suwayda.
All those factors and others have led to the consolidation of the factions in the face of the Syrian regime and its allies who are doing their best to impose their control over the governorate and to abolish those who oppose them, no matter how slight the disagreement is, according to researcher Rashid Hourani.
For many reasons, the assistant researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, Wael Alwan, believes that the regime did not directly intervene militarily in As-Suwayda. First, As-Suwayda has a very cohesive social structure and many references. In addition, As-Suwayda is very important to the head of the Syrian regime because he uses the minority community of As-Suwayda in his foreign political discourse to promote himself as the protector of Syria’s minorities from Islamist extremists.
Samer al-Musfi does not believe that the Syrian regime plans to undertake a direct military intervention in As-Suwayda for several reasons. First, the Syrian regime is sure that the continuation of the Druze-Druze local conflict comes in the best of its interest.
Second, the bill for launching military action by the regime against As-Suwayda “will never be inexpensive,” especially with the presence of the “Men of Dignity Movement,” in addition to the fact that the Druze soon unite against any external aggression.
The stability of events during the past years confirms that the regime has no intention of interfering. Therefore, the factions set up roadblocks and openly search for wanted persons, while the Syrian government’s internal security forces or the security services do nothing, for “The state is present but inactive,” in As-Suwayda.
A cross-border presence in As-Suwayda
On 5 September, a delegation from Lebanon’s Druze visited the Syrian capital, Damascus, and met with the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, just one day before a meeting that took place in As-Suwayda. During the meeting in As-Suwayda, political parties demanded a stand in solidarity with Daraa al-Balad, because it fell in the regime’s hand, which would have negative consequences on As-Suwayda.
During the meeting, al-Assad said that the “reciprocal relationship” between and among people of As-Suwayda would lead them to the right goal.” They will reach their desired objectives “even though there are many attempts to dismantle the national and social structures of the region. Meanwhile, the region’s commanders are waging a battle to protect minds and stop eliminating or giving up identities.”
The Lebanese delegation included Lebanese Democratic Party Chairman MP Mir Talal Arslan, the head of the Arab Unification Party, Wiam Wahhab, and clerics from the Druze community in Lebanon.
However, the nature of the visit, which seemed time-related to the gas project linking Lebanon through Syria, was closer to discussing topics about As-Suwayda governorate. As-Suwayda has a religious and sectarian extension with the Lebanese delegation, especially since the delegation did not include officials concerned with the energy and fuel file and was dominated by the presence of clerics.
Assistant researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Wael Alwan told Enab Baladi that As-Suwayda governorate derives its importance from its interconnected tribal, social and religious fabric, not only at the domestic level but also with the countries surrounding Syria as well.
As-Suwayda, like the rest of the Syrian governorates, is part of the regional and international situation that is greatly intertwined in the Syrian file.
The regime’s dealings with various Syrian regions remain a growing concern for regional states and international actors in the Syrian issue. However, As-Suwayda features internal social cohesion, dominated by many religious references that were able to preserve relative stability in As-Suwayda during the military escalation launched by the Syrian regime forces against other Syrian governorates.
In addition to the cohesive social structure of the governorate and its connections that go beyond the borders, Alwan points out that As-Suwayda has a tribal and religious extension linked to Lebanon and Palestine. Besides, there are countries concerned with maintaining the stability of the southern borders of Syria, especially the Gulf countries that coordinate through Jordan to ensure that.
Alwan stressed the recent visit made by the Lebanese delegation of the Druze community in Lebanon to the regime is significant.
He indicated that this visit absolutely has something to do with what is happening in As-Suwayda. As-Suwayda is closely linked with local actors in Lebanon who can play a major political and social role that would prevent the regime from using a military force in As-Suwayda.
Commenting on As-Suwayda’s anticipated future and the potential escalation of the already tense situation by the Syrian regime, Wael Alwan pointed to a major Russian intervention to maintain local stability in the governorate, despite the attempt of some Iran-linked security branches, led by the Military Security, to exploit the chaos. There is also an internal resentment towards the uncontrolled influence of the 4th Armored Division, which is what the Russians are seeking to settle with the people of As-Suwayda. However, the division shows no response to Russian pressure.
According to the researcher, the regime exploits the terrorism issue by mobilizing cells affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group as part of the military and security solution to pressure the governorate residents.
He also stressed that the Syrian regime is still engaged in skirmishes, which are manifested in assassinations and security raids. But internal cohesion is still a real threat that the regime is handling with caution.
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