As-Suwayda: Assad plays on street divisions

Protesters raise the spiritual leader's photo in As-Suwayda province – June 28, 2024 (Enab Baladi)

Protesters raise the spiritual leader's photo in As-Suwayda province – June 28, 2024 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Throughout the past week, As-Suwayda province has witnessed heightened security tensions, manifested in military confrontations between local factions and the Syrian regime forces, following the establishment of a security checkpoint at the northern entrance of As-Suwayda city.

The developments nearly dragged As-Suwayda into a military conflict with regime forces. Local factions gave the regime a deadline to dismantle the checkpoint, but the regime insisted on keeping it, prompting the elders of the province to intervene in an attempt to reach a solution acceptable to both sides.

The elders intervened on June 25, two days after sporadic armed clashes. Local factions attacked security headquarters and the checkpoint itself, resulting in injuries on both sides.

As events unfolded, Sheikh of the Druze sect (Sheikh al-Aql), Youssef Jarbou, issued a statement calling for support for the “Syrian army” and demanding the improvement of services in the province.

Sheikh Jarbou’s statement did not signal a change in his stance, as he has always been opposed to other components in the province calling for the downfall of the Syrian regime. This became evident from his stance on the protests ongoing in As-Suwayda since August 2023.

At the same time, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Druze sect, remains a symbol of the protests in the province and an opponent of the regime and its actions.

Fragile agreement eases tension

After interventions from elders and religious leaders, the parties reached an agreement to move the checkpoint westward and consider it a military point, not a checkpoint that stops passersby or interferes with the movement of residents.

Suleiman Fakhr, the editor-in-chief of al-Rased, a site specializing in As-Suwayda news, told Enab Baladi that the agreement between local representatives and the Syrian regime ended the tension in As-Suwayda city.

He added that no field changes have occurred and the agreement has not been implemented yet, with all sides still awaiting enforcement, according to information he obtained from sources within the local factions.

Raqia al-Sha’er, an activist in the peaceful movement in As-Suwayda, said that the “agreement is fragile” and could collapse at any moment if the regime refuses to move the checkpoint away from the main street.

Meanwhile, Merhej al-Germani, the leader of the local Ahrar al-Jabal faction, stated that the situation on the ground stabilized after the agreement.

He added that the regime might try to drag the factions into war, but the factions refuse to be dragged into it unless imposed upon them.

Al-Germani also told Enab Baladi that the regime has no interest in engaging in a war in As-Suwayda, noting that its agreement to withdraw the checkpoint is the biggest evidence of this assumption.

At the same time, the military faction leader noted that the military factions in the province are ready for any escalation but are committed to the agreement as long as the regime adheres to it.

Political affairs researcher Jamal al-Shoufi, who resides in As-Suwayda, said that it is not in the regime’s interest to engage in a direct war in As-Suwayda, as this war would strip the regime of the “minorities protection” card it uses before the international community.

Contradictory positions

Peaceful movement activist Raqia al-Sha’er considered Sheikh Youssef Jarbou’s stance aligns with the regime’s policy of dividing ranks and creating a popular rift through a plan it has pursued since the first day of As-Suwayda’s protests.

She denounced Jarbou’s call for activities from As-Suwayda city while excluding other components of the province in an attempt to sever the ties between the countryside and the city, noting that this has been the regime’s goal from the beginning.

She added to Enab Baladi that the regime seeks to militarize the peaceful movement and strike local military components against each other.

Simultaneously, the activist downplayed the risk of contradictory stances, considering that the blood of As-Suwayda’s sons is one, and it is impossible to play on the cord of separating the countryside from the city.

Activist Lamis al-Milhem from As-Suwayda’s movement believes that the regime uses religious figures in its game in As-Suwayda.

She added to Enab Baladi that contrary to the positions of Sheikhs Hikmat al-Hijri and Hamoud al-Hinawi, who support protests against the regime, Sheikh Youssef Jarbou supports the regime, knowing that he has significant social influence in the province as one of the three Sheikhs of the Druze sect (Al-Aql Sheikhs) in As-Suwayda.

Activist Lamis al-Milhem sees Sheikh Youssef Jarbou’s statement as a “real threat to civil peace and a door to strife and fighting within As-Suwayda society,” a card the regime tries to press the protesters with.

Researcher Jamal al-Shoufi told Enab Baladi that despite the division between supporters and opponents of the peaceful movement, there is a general agreement on not allowing the army to interfere in the civilian life of the residents. Therefore, negotiations between the factions and the regime forces concluded that the regime would not establish a security checkpoint in the province, considering it a military point within a fortress that does not interfere in residents’ affairs.

He added that Jarbou’s stance against the military option was based on the “sanctity of Syrian blood and the avoidance of killing and chaos.”

Al-Shoufi believes that the Syrian regime has sought since the early moments to “demonize the peaceful movement in As-Suwayda,” trying to separate popular support from the peaceful movement by challenging its leaders, defaming women protestors, intimidating through siege, and spreading rumors that the popular movement in As-Suwayda demands separation from Syria.

Lawyer and political activist Suleiman al-Kafeeri, who also resides in As-Suwayda, said that Sheikh Youssef Jarbou did not stand against the movement but prefers resolving matters peacefully under the slogan “Syrian blood on Syrian hands is forbidden,” considering Syrian army members as sons of the nation that should not be killed, hence his inclination towards peaceful solutions.

He added to Enab Baladi that differences in opinion are natural, especially in light of an uprising like the one happening in As-Suwayda.

He believes that the regime wants to deepen and feed the division, but wise individuals have thwarted the regime’s plans, emphasizing that the movement is peaceful and should maintain its peaceful nature while practicing democracy.

Not the first

Last April, the regime dispatched military reinforcements to the province for still unknown reasons, but these moves have not led to any changes on the ground until today. Still, these actions are reflected on social media, as pro-regime journalists, loyalists, and accounts run by anonymous individuals talk about an upcoming military operation in the province, while local factions express their readiness to repel any attack or move.

Lebanese journalist close to Hezbollah, Hussein Mortada, previously mentioned in a video posted on his “X” account that military moves would be witnessed in the province “based on appeals made by honorable people to the Syrian army.”

A pro-regime military observer account, “SAM,” mentioned that the reinforcements arriving in As-Suwayda initially aim to “strengthen the military points preserving state institutions inside the province.”

Meanwhile, “Madafet al-Karamah/Dignity Guesthouse,” one of the local references in As-Suwayda province, released a statement warning the Syrian regime and Iran-affiliated militias in the region against any escalation targeting the province, indicating that they will respond.

Laith al-Balous, the son of the founder of Madafet al-Karamah, earlier told Enab Baladi that the regime’s reinforcements to As-Suwayda are merely an attempt to assert its presence.

He added that he expects several scenarios, including the assassination of symbols in As-Suwayda, military raids on some villages, cutting off the province through security checkpoints, or coordinating an attack from the Islamic State on As-Suwayda’s villages and towns.

At the same time, al-Balous said that the province’s residents and fighters are prepared for any scenario but remain primarily peaceful and will not take any action unless the regime initiates escalation.

Protests continue

Despite the recently ended and previous weeks’ security tensions exemplified by the arrival of military reinforcements to the province, peaceful demonstrations continue in As-Suwayda’s main square.

On Friday, June 28, As-Suwayda residents held a demonstration demanding political change and the fall of the regime, just days after local factions clashed with regime forces and a week after explosions occurred without any injuries.

The demonstration, held weekly in As-Suwayda’s central Karamah square, welcomed delegations arriving sequentially to participate and demand freedom and change, including a delegation from the As-Suwayda Teachers’ Union and another from the province’s Engineers’ Union.

Protesters raised banners reading, “One unified Syria,” “Secular democratic Syria,” and “Boycott… Don’t be a witness to falsehood,” calling for the boycott of parliamentary elections run by the regime in its control areas, set for mid-July.

In the protest that saw clear female participation as it always does, protesters also held olive branches symbolizing the peaceful nature of the protest, raised the Syrian revolution flags, and the “Five Borders” flag, which carries religious symbolism for the southern province’s residents, as reported by local media outlets, including “Suwayda 24” and “al-Rased.”

Popular peaceful protests demanding the fall of the regime have continued in As-Suwayda province, southern Syria, for nearly nine months, witnessed daily and culminating in a weekly protest gathering the residents to express their demands.

A wide array of the province’s residents participate in the protests without interruption, including students attending universities in other provinces.

 

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