Druze sheikh released after militia strongarms regime in Suwayda

One day after regime soldiers arrested a member of the Sheikhs of Dignity at a checkpoint ostensibly because he was “wanted for military service,” the armed wing of the independent Druze movement responded by arresting 46 regime soldiers in Suwayda province. 

But according to one reporter on the ground, Sheikh Anas Abu Hala was in fact arrested for “transporting weapons purchased for the Sheikhs of Dignity,” Suwayda Journalism Center correspondent Osama Zeydan told Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammed on Tuesday.

Why not publicize the real reason for the sheikh’s arrest? “The regime’s presence in the province doesn’t have any real value anymore—not militarily or with regard to security,” says Zeydan. “As an example, the regime can no longer simply arrest individuals as they did in the past.”

Q: What led to the arrest of Sheikh Anas Abu Hala?

Officially, Sheikh Anas was arrested because he is wanted for military service. However, the reality—as Balaus indicated in his speech—is that Sheikh Anas was transporting weapons he had purchased for the Sheikhs of Dignity—Balaus’s men. That is why Sheikh Balaus said that they demanded that the regime release Sheikh Anas and whatever he had in his possession.

[Ed.: The Sheiks of Dignity gained local notoriety last summer when the group’s deceased leader, Sheikh Wahid al-Balaus, publicly denounced the regime for conscripting Druze men into the military and began offering refuge to deserters in his home, Syria Direct reported last June. After his death in a car bombing last September, Sheikh Wahid’s brother Rafat Balaus assumed leadership of the Sheikhs of Dignity and quickly accused the regime of assassinating his brother. In a statement issued last November, Sheikh Rafat Balaus said the IEDs used to kill Sheikh Wahid contained “incendiary materials only states could possess.”]

Q: How was Sheikh Anas Abu Hala’s release secured?

The Sheikhs of Dignity set up checkpoints throughout the city and blocked all of the main roads. They then arrested 46 regime soldiers, including officers and non-commissioned officers, and traded these men for Sheikh Anas.

[Ed.: The tensions between the Sheikhs of Dignity and the regime flared up again last week following the arrest of Sheikh Anas Abu Hala.

For his part, Sheikh Rafat al-Balaus issued a statement on Wednesday affirming his group’s “neutral stance” and saying they would “continue to bring weapons and arm” themselves.]

Q: To what extent does the regime control Suwayda province?

The regime’s presence in the province doesn’t have any real value anymore—not militarily or with regard to security. As an example, the regime can no longer simply arrest individuals as they did in the past. Rather, they have to rely on kidnappings conducted by gangs affiliated with the regime—who they refer to as National Defense of Self-Defense forces—and some religious individuals associated with the al-Aql Sheikhs that are tied to the regime.

The regime operates in secret, relying in kidnappings and assassination. They play the local residents against one another most of the time and their gangs steal and loot.

Q: Given that there are several prominent factions in the provincial capital, how would you describe the security situation?

You could say that influence in Suwayda city is divided among the more than 18 different armed factions. Some of these factions are tied to the regime and some are independent. Balaus’s Sheikhs of Dignity are one such independent group and they have a large number of men armed with light weaponry. Balous’s statement [regarding the purchasing of weaponry] is nothing new. Despite the regime’s opposition the Sheikhs of Dignity group has received millions of dollars from Druze groups to purchase and distribute weaponry to its men.

Sama Mohammed

Sama is from Daraa province. She received her bachelor's degree in literature in 2011 and taught English in Sheikh Miskeen. In 2013, she moved to Jordan and worked as a freelance translator before joining Syria Direct.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.