A celebration at the al-Mashnaqa roundabout in downtown Suwayda city after a Damascus-linked militia led by Raji Falhout was eliminated, 27/7/2020 (Suwayda 24)
PARIS — On Monday, unidentified individuals dumped Muhammad Abu Hamdan’s body at the al-Mashnaqa roundabout in downtown Suwayda city, three days after he was kidnapped from his home in Syria’s southern province of Suwayda by an armed group. Abu Hamdan was one out of seven members of the Dawn Forces—a militia supported by the Syrian regime’s military security branch and led by Raji Falhout—whose bodies were left in downtown Suwayda in less than a week. He was one of the group’s most prominent members.
The killings came after the Dawn Forces, or the “Falhout group” as it is locally known, was ousted in Suwayda province last week during a military campaign against Falhout launched by local armed factions in Suwayda with support from local residents. The campaign has since extended to include other groups supported by Damascus’ military security branch in Suwayda province.
No party has claimed responsibility for killing the seven Dawn Forces members. But one of the victims, Raed Kamaluddin, appeared in a video clip posted on July 27 on the Anti-Terrorism Force’s Facebook page, in what appears to be an interrogation. The Falhout group largely eradicated the Anti-Terrorism Force, a faction tied to an opposition party in Suwayda, in an attack in mid-June that led to the death of its leader. His body—like Kamaluddin’s—was found at the al-Mashnaqa roundabout.
In the video, Kamaluddin says he worked with Raji Falhout, which “may indicate the possibility that they [the Anti-Terrorism Force] were the ones who killed these prisoners,” said Abu Taymour, the head of the media wing of the Men of Dignity. The Men of Dignity is a local Druze faction that took part in operations against the Falhout group last week.
Where is Raji Falhout?
Leading up to the announcement that the Dawn Forces were eliminated last week, the military operation was widely supported by Falhout’s military opponents, as well as civilians personally affected by violations committed by the regime-backed group. But after its headquarters were raided in the towns of Ateel and Salim and the group’s leader was not found, accusations and rumors spread that one of the groups participating in the operation helped Falhout escape. His fate remains unknown.
The speculation prompted the Men of Dignity, as one of the factions participating in the operation, to clarify what happened after Falhout’s home was raided. In a July 27 statement, the faction said “after the home of the terrorist Raji Falhout was stormed by members of the Men of Dignity movement and the supporting youth after violent resistance, he was not found, contrary to the news being circulated, and his fate remains unknown.”
The statement went on to say that all members of the Dawn Forces in Falhout’s house were killed and captured by members and supporters of the Men of Dignity, “who know that the so-called Raji Falhout was not in the headquarters that were raided.”
Abu Taymour said there are four members of the Dawn Forces whose fates remain unknown: “Raji, Tamam and Hayyan Falhout and Manhal al-Saeed.” He said his faction has no information about whether they are hiding within Suwayda or if they were smuggled out by regime security services.
Political analyst Samer Salloum, who is from Shahba city in the Suwayda countryside and currently lives in Lebanon, speculated that “military security learned about the zero hour before the attack by residents of Shahba and the local factions, and Raji Falhout was smuggled out before his house was besieged.”
Rayan Maarouf, the director of the local Suwayda 24 network, suggested that rumors surrounding Falhout’s fate and his being smuggled out by a participating faction “come from the Syrian regime, and fake accounts on social media spreading fake news” aimed, in his view, at undermining trust in local factions.
‘Their blood is fair game on the mountain’
On the morning of July 29, the people of Suwayda city woke to the sound of gunfire in the center of the city. The bodies of six people, showing clear signs of torture, were soon discovered at the al-Mashnaqa roundabout, local media reported. Local factions and residents who participated in the operation against the Falhout group hastened to distance themselves from the killings.
Two days later, Laith al-Balous, the son of the founder of the Men of Dignity—Wahid al-Balous, who was assassinated in 2015—appeared in a video posted on social media, in which he announced the release of six prisoners from the Falhout militia in two stages. They were handed over to their relatives after pledging not to become involved again with those causing discord and tearing “the internal fabric of the mountain [Suwayda],” he said. They also pledged to “stand with their people in preserving their dignity, land and honor.”
During his speech, al-Balous stressed that “uprooting the Raji Falhout gang means eradicating Iranian expansion in the region.” While he did not claim the downtown Suwayda killings, he attacked those who denounced them, saying those who were killed had blood on their hands. “Their blood must be borne by all the families on the mountain,” he said.
Al-Balous based his words on the June 26 statement by the Sheikhs of Reason—the religious authority for the Druze in Suwayda province—calling to “uproot the gang of the terrorist Raji Falhout,” which “means their blood is fair game on the mountain.”
Al-Balous took part in the storming of the Falhout group’s headquarters in the town of Salim, leading his group “The Men of Sheikh Abu Fahd Wahid al-Balous,” based in the west Suwayda town of al-Mazraa. Al-Balous was removed from the Men of Dignity, the faction his father founded, in 2016, and later joined several factions of varying allegiances.
Abu Taymour, the Men of Dignity media official, denied that his faction was responsible for the summary executions in Suwayda city. He said they captured nine members of the Falhout group “and handed them over to the al-Tawil family in Shahba city, since they are [the families of the Falhout group’s most recent victims], and thus vacated our responsibility. We don’t know what happened after that.”
Political analyst Salloum attributed the attempts by all parties to disavow the killings to “their fear of being drawn into tribal and family revenge killings within the province.” He noted that the call by Sheikh al-Aql Hikmat al-Hijri—a religious leader of Suwayda’s Druze community—to fire upon any member of the Falhout group is “the first statement and speech from the religious leadership in the history of Suwayda that breaks one of the principles of the sect: that spilling the blood of a fellow Druze is forbidden.”
“The religious authorization for all the people of Suwayda provided a justification for all those who took up weapons against the gang,” he added.
Suwayda after Falhout
It appears the chapter of the Dawn Forces has ended with the flight of its commander. “He lost his group’s main base with the killing and capture of most of its members, meaning that it is difficult to revive it unless the regime wants to rebuild Raji’s power,” Salloum said.
Damascus could use people from outside Suwayda to bolster the ranks of groups affiliated with it in Suwayda. “Some of Raji’s fighters weren’t from Suwayda, as one of the prisoners captured is from Idlib and three are Palestinians,” Salloum said. “The prisoner from Idlib is a forced conscript with the military security service,” which illustrates direct regime support for the Falhout group,” he added.
But even if the Falhout group is finished, the operation that started to eradicate it “is not over,” Abu Taymour said. “The Men of Dignity continue raids almost daily, based on the documents and records found at the headquarters and the confessions of prisoners.” In that context, “the movement has detained some wanted people and continues to search for others.
The Men of Dignity have set a deadline for “the rest of the members of the gangs to surrender themselves and their weapons within a specific time,” Au Taymour said. “Some have responded and handed over weapons, documents and information.”
Salim Humeid, the commander of the al-Fahd Forces, a local faction also backed by military security, announced he put his faction’s weapons and members “under the will and directives of our dignified religious leaders to unite ranks in ridding the mountain of all manifestations that violate the law, customs and traditions,” the group posted on its Facebook page on July 31.
The statement followed two days of tensions in the town of Qanawat, northeast of Suwayda city, after the Liwa al-Jabal faction gave the al-Fahd Forces 24 hours to hand over their weapons.
In addition to pursuing the “military security gangs,” the Men of Dignity plan to continue operations “against drug dealers and traffickers, all of whom work with the regime,” Abu Taymour said. Local Facebook pages in Suwayda posted pictures of “machines and presses for manufacturing captagon pills” at the Falhout group’s headquarters during the recent operation.
As operations continue, “a campaign against the military security-linked Fida al-Andari gang in the village of al-Taybeh” similar to what happened in Qanawat against the Fahd Forces late last week is expected to begin soon, Suwayda 24 director Marouf said.
Salloum said Suwayda’s youth are determined to continue operations against Damascus-linked factions, “but with caution.” In his view, continuing the outburst of anger in Suwayda that sparked in Shahba against the Falhout group is necessary “to uproot the gangs affiliated with military security, because retreating from it means 100 Rajis will appear, instead of one.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.