‘We’re staying out of it’: Syrian Arab Army soldiers in Suwayda defy military command

After serving for three years in the Syrian Arab Army, from 2012 to 2015, Abu Sari was ready to go home.

The 24-year-old soldier from Syria’s south had fought along the frontlines in northern Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. He suffered two injuries, one of which almost took his life.

“I’m not weak and I’m not scared,” he tells Syria Direct’s Samer al-Halabi, “but it was enough.”

So Abu Sari left the military in early 2015 and returned to southern Suwayda province, where an estimated 90 percent of residents are, like him, members of the minority Druze sect native to the area.

Within months, however, Abu Sari was back in the army’s ranks.

He joined the Suwayda-based 127th Regimentpart of the Syrian army’s 15th Special Forces Division—certain, this time, that he would remain close to home.

That assurance came from a mid-2015 government decree allowing men in Suwayda to complete their military service exclusively within the province’s borders.

But in mid-September, after months of training with Russian soldiers to help enforce a local de-escalation agreement, Abu Sari was among 75 soldiers from his battalion who were ordered to deploy to northern Hama province. There, they would support the efforts of pro-government forces against the Syrian opposition.

Syrian Arab Army soldiers positioned in eastern Suwayda province in August. Photo courtesy of Syria Victory.

Abu Sari and the other soldiers from Suwayda turned to the Sheikhs of Reasonan influential group of Druze spiritual leaders with close connections to the Syrian regimefor help. The order has since been cancelled, he tells Syria Direct this week.

For now, Abu Sari will remain in Suwayda.

“The priority is to defend your family and the land on which you grew up,” he says, “so that you don’t become a victim of a sectarian war for nothing.”

“I won’t leave again.”

Q: How did you and your fellow soldiers react to the order to serve in Hama province? 

We all refused the orders and told our comrades in the battalion who are from Suwayda about what happened. They stood with us. Some 170 soldiers got together and told the officers we would not leave the province and would leave the service completely if they tried to force us. We were armed with the [2015] decree permitting us to serve only in Suwayda province.

A few days later, a number of us went to Suwayda city and met with the Sheikhs of Reason [a group of Druze religious clerics] at the Ayn al-Zaman shrine there. We told them about the orders and that we had refused them. They sympathized with us and said they would speak with the commander of the 15th Division and not allow anyone to take us outside the province.

Q: Were you afraid to resist the government’s order that you serve in Hama province?

Honestly, we took this action based on previous experiences that the province has been through, which proved that the government rejects any escalation and tries to contain any tension with the people of Suwayda.   

Q: Does the order stand to this day? How were local leaders able to affect the decision? 

The order was cancelled, according to one of our officers. We’re still in the regiment, waiting to be deployed to de-escalation points [inside Suwayda]. But there hasn’t been anything official to this point.

The Sheikhs of Reason are always the link between us and the [military] command. When we have demands, they relay them. The Sheikhs of Reason viewed us honorably as sons of Suwayda. When we went to them, we were sure they wouldn’t let us down.

A member of the Sheikhs of Reason meets with Syrian army commanders in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sheikhs of Reason.

When the Sheikhs of Reason supported us, it motivated us to stick to our decision. They are the primary authority for the sect. Most of the people in the province respect and value them, even the [military] command.

Q: How do you see the relationship between Suwayda province and the Syrian regime? Could Suwayda province exist without the regime?

Yes, Suwayda can exist without the regime, but it can’t exist without Syria. There is a vast difference between Syria and the [ruling] system of government.

Suwayda will remain Syrian and we reject any attempt to divide the country. As for the relationship between the province and the government—it is determined by the situation and circumstances.

The government has granted a number of requests from residents of the province, most notably the one permitting us to serve in Suwayda.

To this day, [the government] has not directly escalated [attacks] against the people of Suwayda. To be honest, if there had been [a similar] order and resistance like ours, in another military unit and in a province other than Suwayda, I think the situation would be entirely different. No one would attempt such a move outside Suwayda.

Q: How do you reconcile your identity as a Druze, a Syrian and a Suwayda resident?

We in Suwayda follow the noble slogan raised by the leader of the Great Syrian Revolution in 1925, Sultan Pasha al-Atrash: “Religion is for God, the homeland is for all.”

We do not choose sectarianism but the war in Syria has forced us to lean in that direction on some matters.

I assure you, if the war in Syria had been with an external foe, you would see the people of Suwayda at the forefront, as was the case in the past. But since it’s a civil, sectarian war, we’re staying out of it. 

Q: You described the war as sectarian. Can you elaborate?

Yes, it certainly is, and it’s not only [my] feelings—it’s a tangible reality. I saw it clearly while taking part in combat operations, especially when I was in Aleppo.

I saw hundreds of fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, even Afghanistan. They fought with us or on their own fronts, raising religious slogans. When we spoke with Arabs among them—the Iraqis or the Lebanese—they would tell us that they see it as a war over existence, and that they came to Syria with a religious motive, to defend holy sites and shrines. Some honestly say they’re in Syria to fight the Sunni sect. By contrast, the terrorist organizations that we were fighting would also raise religious slogans and banners, calling for the death of all minorities and religious [groups] that differ from [their own].

If you were in such a situation, you would certainly feel that you don’t have an interest in this war. The priority is to defend your family and the land on which you grew up, so you don’t become a victim of a sectarian war for nothing.

If I were martyred in Suwayda, it would be an honor for me. If the same happened outside my province—between conflicting religious banners—then I would just be a victim.

I’m not weak and I’m not scared—as I said, I’ve participated in dozens of battles [in northern Syria]—but it was enough.

I’m ready to fight to the last breath to defend my province and my family, but I won’t leave again.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.