‘I do not expect the regime will dig its own grave by moving on Suwayda’

In the aftermath of the Friday assassination of its leader, Sheikh Wahid al-Balaus, the Druze Sheikhs of Dignity movement attacked and reportedly took control of a number of regime security branches in Suwayda city. [See here and here]

Despite widespread anger towards the regime, it is impossible to definitively determine who carried out the assassination. Furthermore, the ongoing cutoff of internet and mobile phones in Suwayda for now rules out almost all contact with people in the province.

In recent months, tensions between al-Balaus and the regime had “increased to the exploding point,” Malek Abu Khair, a Druze journalist based in Lebanon with contacts in the province tells Syria Direct’s Moutasem Jamal.

Beginning this past June, Balaus issued a statement saying that the “sons of Suwayda” would no longer be conscripted, but would remain under his protection. He prevented the regime from withdrawing military hardware from the province by blocking the roads. This past week, Balaus backed demonstrators who had gathered for several days of peaceful protests, calling for reforms in the province just three hours before his assassination.

Sheikh al-Balaus was a religious figure who stood in the face of the regime and told it ‘no,’ something unprecedented among Alawites or Christians or Ismailis.”

The mistake that cost Balaus his life, Abu Khair says, was “supporting the demonstrations that began days ago, asserting that the protestors were under his protection and that nobody should come near them.”

Q: As far as you know, what is the current situation in Suwayda following the explosions and the assassination of al-Balaus?

Suwayda is divided between regime and non-regime [supporters]. There are still regime loyalists in Suwayda, and they are convinced that there are international actors that committed this act in order to sow fitna [discord]. They have the same phrasing and mindset as the regime.

Reason is currently prevailing in the province. During events like this, even the loyalists and the opposition find agreement. Our political situations are different, but this does not mean that we will destroy the province. We hope that this agreement will continue. Currently, there are loyalists and opponents organizing traffic and protecting government centers.

Sheikh al-Balaus this past June. Photo courtesy of Men of Dignity.

Q: Why did al-Balaus challenge the regime, in your opinion?

Sheikh al-Balaus was a religious figure, concerned with the Druze sect. So when he saw security interferences with the Druze or escalation in the decisions by [state] security apparatuses it was natural for him to oppose them.

In the beginning [of the war], Suwayda’s clerics were silent because they were convinced that the matter was just armed terrorist gangs, and a takfiri presence.

However, time passed and when they saw the regime trying to convert Suwayda into a support base, and particularly after the bodies of many of Suwayda’s young men arrived, the Sheikhs [of Dignity, Balaus’s political movement] rose up.

Q: Do you believe that there will be any regime backlash against the province in the coming days?

The situation is murky, but I do not expect that the regime will dig its own grave by moving on Suwayda. If it did so, [it would have to pass] Druze-majority Jaramana, Sahnaya in Damascus and Jabal al-Sheikh [on the Lebanese border]. These areas would form a fearsome barrier.

There are loyalists there, but when the matter is connected to the security of the [Jabal al-Druze] mountain, and there is a military force facing the mountain, then immediately the sectarian condition in these areas will awaken and remind them of when the French entered the mountains [during the early twentieth century Great Syrian Revolt against colonial rule].

The regime knows not to provoke these areas because the Druze will cut off all the roads leading to Suwayda and they will rise up against the regime.

Q: Why have the people of Suwayda accused the regime, given that there is nothing tangible on the ground?

Regime opponents had demonstrated for days in a peaceful and civilized manner, observed by the media, which put the regime in a difficult position because it could not accuse them of being terrorist gangs, and so it cut off communications and the internet.

Hours before his assassination, Sheikh al-Balaus intervened, saying to the regime that the protesters were under his protection, that it was forbidden to approach them, and that they had the freedom to demonstrate.

Three hours later, he was assassinated. Because of that, all the fingers of accusation pointed directly to the regime.

Secondly, the explosions happened in areas of the provincial capital that are difficult for any extremist organization to enter due to the presence of [regime] security checkpoints and Sheikhs of Dignity checkpoints.

The first explosion was in al-Balaus’s car, and the second was in front of the hospital where al-Balaus was taken, as though the regime was saying to him: “You’ve annoyed us.”

The second explosion is the one that stirred people up.

In the hospital, the regime security forces told people: “Get out of here, al-Balaus has died.”

When people realized this, they forced the regime soldiers from the hospital and began to storm the security branches one after another, just as Sheikh al-Balaus had threatened the regime for two years.

Everyone knew that the tensions between al-Balaus and the regime had increased to an exploding point. Everyone knew that both sides were waiting for the other to make a mistake.

Al-Balaus’s mistake was, according to the regime, that he supported the demonstrations that began days ago, and said that the demonstrators were under his protection and nobody should come near them.

Then the explosion happened, and the people exploded against the regime.

Even so, you can’t rule out anything in light of the security situation in Syria. It is possible that a third party exploited the enmity between Balaus and the regime to create fitna in Suwayda.

The voice of reason in Suwayda tries to convey a position in the middle to some extent, far from any loyalty or opposition [to the regime], and we as journalists try to put people on the right track.  

Q: Sheikh al-Balaus’s anti-regime stance has been known for quite some time. In your view, what does his assassination mean at this time in particular?

Sheikh al-Balaus was a religious figure who stood in the face of the regime and told it “no,” something unprecedented among Alawites or Christians or Ismailis.

The Druze sect has a certain standing, so the status of clerics has importance and weight on the ground. If an ordinary civil figure came out [against the regime] then it would not be as important in the media.

Balaus not only stood up to the military and security forces, but also challenged all manifestations of the regime in [Suwayda] city. He prevented the regime from taking anybody to military service or reserve duty, or arresting Suwayda’s young men. 

Moutasem Jamal

Moutasem Jamal studied English literature. He moved to Jordan after losing his job because of violence in his area.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.