Fighters belonging to local groups rally in the Suwayda countryside to confront the Damascus-aligned Raji Falhout group, 26/7/2022 (Suwayda 24)
PARIS — Local Druze groups in Suwayda province seized control of the main headquarters of the Dawn Forces, a group affiliated with Syrian military intelligence, on Wednesday, turning over a new page for one of the largest militias supported by Damascus and Iran in the south.
The attacking forces—the Men of Dignity and local armed groups—took control of the military headquarters of the Dawn Forces, also known as the “Falhout group” for its leader, Raji Falhout, following a second consecutive day of clashes. A number of members of the militia, which works in the interest of the Syrian regime’s local military security branch, were killed and captured.
Abu Taymour, the head of the media wing of the Men of Dignity, a local Druze faction formed to defend Suwayda province, denied reports that Falhout was captured on Wednesday. “After taking control of the Dawn Forces headquarters and capturing those inside, Raji Falhout was not found,” he told Syria Direct. The leader likely “fled or took shelter with a local notable,” he said.
The Falhout group is accused of being involved in kidnappings and assassinations in Suwayda province, which is nominally under regime control but has a level of unofficial autonomy. Damascus has relied on several local groups, including the Dawn Forces, to further its aims and those of Tehran in the province.
Although Damascus has not intervened directly in the ongoing events in Suwayda, the recent developments raise a number of questions about how the regime will respond, to what extent these events will develop, and how they will affect the Druze-majority province.
How the story began
On July 23, the Dawn Forces kidnapped Jad Hussein al-Tawil, a man from Shahba city in the northern Suwayda countryside. The group accused him of being involved in arranging attempts to assassinate Falhout, and of belonging to the Hizb al-Liwa opposition party and it military arm, the Anti-Terrorism Force, which was eradicated in mid-June.
After al-Tawil was kidnapped, dozens of people from Shahba cut off the Damascus-Suwayda road and took hostage a number of people from Ateel, Falhout’s hometown in northern Suwayda. Falhout’s forces responded in kind, kidnapping a number of people from Shahba and blocking several roads in the province.
As tensions rose between the two sides, local groups kidnapped four regime officers, including two colonels, on July 24 in response to the kidnappings by the Falhout group.
The next day, the Falhout group released all people kidnapped from Shahba city except for Jad al-Tawil, and reopened the closed roads. Matters appeared to be moving towards a resolution, especially after local notables and figures intervened.
But the evening of the same day, July 25, the Falhout group kidnapped another man from Shahba city, Jamal Ajwad al-Tawil, at a checkpoint in Ateel. It then deployed a number of military checkpoints on Tuesday surrounding Ateel, and detained civilians from Shahba.
People in Shahba city considered the events a “challenge,” which prompted them to “call through the city’s loudspeakers for support to strike the Falhout gang at its headquarters in Ateel and free the hostages by armed force, not intermediaries,” said Samer Salloum, a political analyst from Shahba who is currently living in Lebanon.
The regime, including the Military Security Directorate which the Falhout group belongs to, has taken no public stance on what is taking place in Suwayda. “The province has seen a withdrawal of the role of the security branches and their headquarters,” Men of Dignity media official Abu Taymour said.
Syrian state media has not reported on the recent events. On Wednesday, the state-owned news agency SANA reported that the Suwayda Education Directorate postponed tests scheduled for this week, without mentioning a reason.
Academic and Syrian opposition politician Yahya al-Aridi, who is from Suwayda city, said he expects Damascus to avoid defending its affiliates in Suwayda “to absolve itself before the people” and “employ other people once calm returns.” But this policy of relying on local groups has become evident, and the fate of any new group “will be no different from the groups it has used,” al-Aridi said, referring to the Falhout group.
In al-Aridi’s view, “the people of Suwayda today are at the height of eagerness to act as one for solidarity, cooperation and self-determination, to be saved from such phenomena and those who stand behind and move them.”
Where is Suwayda headed?
Druze spiritual leadership, represented by Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, in an appeal via loudspeakers in their headquarters in the town of Qanawat, called on the people of Suwayda to raise a public alarm on Tuesday to resist armed groups led by “the terrorist Raji Falhout, which have wreaked killing and corruption in the province,” local pro-opposition media organization Suwayda 24 reported.
In response, “all the Falhout gang’s headquarters were burned and destroyed, and all its members were killed or captured, except for a very few who managed to escape,” Abu Taymour said.
“The Sheikhs of Reason [Druze spiritual leaders in the province] have made the blood of the Falhout gang and all those who try to protect and shelter them fair game,” Abu Taymour said. On that basis, the Men of Dignity continue to “pursue Raji and the remaining leaders,” he added. “The gang’s military power is over.”
The campaign the Men of Dignity and other local groups in Suwayda are participating in will not stop at eliminating the Falhout group, according to Abu Taymour. “It continues, to uproot all military security groups in the province,” he said.
Political analyst Salloum agreed. “After the blood in Suwayda, there will be no agreement with the gangs, but rather an agreement to end them completely,” he said. Salloum said the events in Suwayda should not be described as a “familial or regional war between Shahba and Ateel, but rather a battle between the people of Suwayda and the gangs supported by the security branches.”
So far, it is not possible to accurately read the future of events in Suwayda, as “things are moving in an unclear direction,” al-Aridi said. “The future depends on the mechanism the regime follows, and the movements of the rest of the gangs associated with it.”
Regardless of the response of “the traitorous militias, and whether they will follow Falhout’s approach,” al-Aridi believes the response of people in Suwayda “will be strong, because they are united.” For that reason, “no individual or group will move before calculating its movements,” especially since “those who attacked Ateel and Salim [the locations of the Falhout group] were not the al-Tawil family, but the people of the province as a whole.”
As for the fate of Raji Falhout and his group, Abu Taymour said “the majority of those captured have legal claims against them. Most likely, they will be turned over to the Criminal Security Directorate” belonging to the regime, he said, on the condition that “they are not included in any amnesty.” If the individuals are released, “the Criminal Security Directorate in Suwayda will be held accountable.”
To that end, “they will not be handed over until after the investigations are completed, and the sheikhs and notables of Suwayda exert pressure to ensure they are not released,” Abu Taymour said. But that does not include Raji Falhout. “It is difficult to determine what his fate will be, but I expect he will be eliminated locally, after he is interrogated.”
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.