Druze militiamen block regime weapons from leaving Suwayda

AMMAN: The Syrian regime is reportedly removing valuable resources from Suwayda, including grain, hard currency, and most recently weapons as fears grow of an upcoming Islamic State attack on the Druze-majority province.

On Sunday, armed supporters loyal to the Sheikhs of Dignity movement stopped a column of regime tanks from Division 15 on the highway to Damascus. The army was attempting to transport “heavy weaponry,” reportedly outside the province, Noura al-Basha, a Druze member of the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union in Suwayda, an umbrella group of pro-opposition activists, told Syria Direct Monday.

While Syria Direct could not independently confirm the direction of the convoy, pro-opposition media widely reported that the regime intended to remove the heavy weaponry from Suwayda province [see Sunday’s report in the pan-Arab daily a-Sharq al-Awsat: “Regime empties Suwayda of heavy weapons” here].

Stopping the regime's convoy in Suwayda. Photo courtesy of Syria in my heart.

After the militiamen intercepted the convoy, “a number of the regime soldiers fled, and the others were captured by the Sheikhs of Dignity supporters, who forced the column to return to their bases in Suwayda province,” al-Basha added.

While the Druze Sheikhs of Dignity movement, led by Sheikh Waheed al-Balaus, denounces both regime and armed opposition excesses, they see the former's weapons as a bulwark against any foreign incursions into the province.

In a typically fiery speech following the confrontation with Division 15 on Sunday, Sheikh Waheed al-Balaus said the removal of Syrian army weapons from Suwayda is unacceptable.

“We will not accept, under any pretense, that the army's equipment be moved from its [current] locations,” al-Balaus said in a speech delivered and circulated on social media Sunday, after his militia stopped the column.

Al-Balaus connected Sunday's incident to the regime's emptying the province of essential goods over the past two months.

“When most of the money and hard currency was removed from the Central Bank [in Suwayda] we didn't move...we warned, and are still warning that the province is being emptied of grain...but for the province to be emptied of weapons...no, a thousand times no!”

The specter of the Islamic State

While state media has not commented on its removal of valuable goods from Suwayda province, several pro-opposition activists interviewed by Syria Direct said that the move is most likely intended to coerce the Druze into standing by the regime's side in its fight against southern rebels.

Thousands of young Druze men are wanted for mandatory military service, and the Druze of Suwayda did not send reinforcements to aid the regime in its fight to protect Busra a-Sham in nearby Daraa in March.

“Luna a-Shibl, a media consultant for Assad who is from Suwayda, met with the Druze after the rebels captured Busra a-Sham and threatened [to facilitate] the Islamic State's [entry into Suwayda] if the province avoided sending young men for military service,” Hafiz Qarqut, a writer and political analyst from Suwayda, told Syria Direct. Shibl's meeting with the Druze was widely reported by pro-opposition media in April [see al-Souria's report here].

Shortly after the meeting with a-Shibl, groups affiliated with IS began to attack points around the Khalkhala airport in the north of Suwayda, he added. IS-allied Bedouins attacked the village of al-Haqf in the northern Suwayda countryside in May.

The Islamic State incursions into Suwayda are a reminder of what is coming if the regime abandons the province, said Noura al-Basha.

“The regime's goal by emptying the province of heavy weapons is leaving Suwayda to its own fate, leaving Suwayda to face the Islamic State.” 

Moutasem Jamal

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

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.