PARIS — In Syria’s southern Suwayda province, disagreements and arguments are simmering between the Men of Dignity movement—the largest military faction in the Druze-majority province—and Sheikh Laith al-Balous, the son of its founder Sheikh Wahid al-Balous.
Some observers view tensions as an attempt by the son, who was expelled from the Men of Dignity after his father was assassinated in 2015, to play a leading role in the province on the basis of his father’s legacy.
In the background, the Men of Dignity and activists who spoke to Syria Direct accused a third party of playing a role in stirring up tensions: the Syrian Brigade Party. The opposition party coordinates with the Anti-Terrorism Force, a local faction that was largely eliminated in June 2022 following a military operation by Syrian military security and affiliated local groups that ended in the death of its commander, Samer al-Hakim.
The disputes leave the southern province on edge, amid fears that they could develop into an armed confrontation. The current disagreements also come after months of clashes and tensions in Suwayda between local factions and military groups affiliated with Damascus. The clashes began with the “eradication” of the Anti-Terrorism Force in June, followed by operations by the Men of Dignity and other factions to “uproot” groups affiliated with military security, most prominently the Falhout group, starting in late July 2022.
Syria Direct attempted to obtain a comment from Laith al-Balous, but received no reply as of the time of publication of this report.
Disagreements within the Men of Dignity
On January 9, the commander of the Men of Dignity’s al-Kafr group, named for the southeastern Suwayda town of al-Kafr, announced it was suspending cooperation with the faction “for internal reasons, while emphasizing we remain standing and ready to shed our blood for the dignity of our mountain and our people in the town.”
Responding to the announcement, a media source from the Men of Dignity told Syria Direct, on condition of anonymity, that the faction itself had removed the commander, Aysar Murshid, from leadership “as a result of him neglecting his duties, the accumulation of debts upon him and accusations of fraud.”
After the Men of Dignity removed Murshid from command, the source said, he reacted by “posting untrue news.” He added that “more than half of the forces in that group did not comply with the decision to suspend participation with the movement.”
Murshid denied the accusations against him, and told Syria Direct he had not faced any accountability from the movement’s committees. His group suspended work with the Men of Dignity, he said, based on “demands and questions that were not answered convincingly by the leadership.”
“Many members and groups have withdrawn from the movement recently,” Murshid added, “most importantly the forces of Bayraq al-Adham.” He attributed this to what he described as “the movement’s conciliatory stance towards the Syrian regime, and its downward path.” He did not leave the Men of Dignity, he said, to align with Laith al-Balous, and denied having any “relationship with him currently.”
At the same time, the Men of Dignity released statements accusing Sheikh Louai Sami al-Qantar, who had worked with Bayraq al-Adham, of departing from the religious and moral principles of the group.
But the al-Karama Guesthouse (Madafat al-Karama), the former operations and administrative center of the Men of Dignity—founded at the home of its leader Wahid al-Balous in 2013 and currently led by his son Laith—has publicly denied the accusations against al-Qantar. In a statement posted on Facebook on January 13, Madafat al-Karama called al-Qantar’s dismissal “arbitrary.”
“We do not accept injustice against any of our sheikhs or young men, and we refute at the same time all the slander and lies propagated by collaborators with the security and intelligence services to try to undermine the Madafa and distort its history,” the statement said.
The statement went on to say that the doors of Madafat al-Karama, which retains symbolic significance in the province, “are open, and it is a fortress which every vulnerable and oppressed person can turn to, and it is prepared to receive anyone to join its groups,” provided the individual does not deal with the intelligence services or “collaborators” in Suwayda, and is “not implicated in anything that violates the customs, traditions, honor, path and principles of the founding martyr, Sheikh Abu Fahd Wahid al-Balous.”
The statement was one of a number made by Laith al-Balous criticizing the current Men of Dignity leadership over the past several weeks, through speeches in the street or in the media.
When al-Qantar left the Men of Dignity and aligned himself with Laith al-Balous around two months ago, the faction demanded that he turn over his weapons, considering them to belong to the movement, the media source said. He accused al-Qantar of attacking a regime checkpoint, alongside another local faction, “for no reason,” leading to casualties. The source did not provide the time or details of the incident, which Syria Direct could not independently confirm.
On that basis, “al-Qantar was dismissed, and his weapons were withdrawn,” the Men of Dignity media source added. “The decision was made with the consensus of the forces and leadership of Bayraq al-Adham.”
Defections and dismissals within the Men of Dignity are not a new phenomenon, said media activist Zain al-Halabi (a pseudonym), who is from Suwayda. “Since the assassination of Sheikh Wahid in 2015, the movement has been in a state of continuous defections” that sometimes “have a regional character, or internal disputes related to the regime’s interference, but they do not amount to defections from a traditional military body.”
The Men of Dignity and Damascus
In 2015, after Wahid al-Balous was assassinated by a bombing targeting his convoy that the Syrian regime was accused of orchestrating, his brother Sheikh Rafat assumed leadership of the Men of Dignity. The military faction was originally founded to protect and defend Jabal al-Druze against any threats—from the Syrian regime, opposition factions or extremist groups.
At that time, Laith al-Balous was excluded from the movement by his uncle, and subsequently moved between a number of local factions, from the Sheikh al-Karama Forces to al-Sharyan al-Wahad, and most recently to the Anti-Terrorism Force.
The founder’s son was not the only one to undergo a transformation following the death of his father. The movement Wahid al-Balous founded saw a clear shift from a state of estrangement with the regime following the assassination to greater “openness” towards it after Sheikh Yahya al-Hajjar took over leadership in February 2017, al-Halabi said.
Although the movement’s rhetoric appeared to become “conciliatory towards the regime” since 2019, criticism of it for doing so “is used more against the movement by Sheikh [Laith] al-Balous,” al-Halabi said.
Speaking to Enab Baladi, a local opposition media outlet, last week, al-Balous said: “Whoever appears on video thanking the president of the regime, Bashar al-Assad, and the head of the Military Intelligence Division, Kifah Mulhim, it is clear to whom he belongs,” referring to a 2019 video of al-Hajjar thanking the two men.
“A military commander opposed to the regime cannot go to the Jaramana suburb of Damascus and the town of Hadar in Quneitra, making his way through the security checkpoints,” al-Balous added, referring to visits by al-Hajjar to those areas, most recently a visit to Hadar on January 4.
Al-Balous has taken a hard stance and opposition position against the regime for years. This has become more apparent recently, especially with a wave of popular protests in the province due to poor service and living conditions.
On the other hand, the Men of Dignity have not evolved their credo, which “is still based on the slogans announced by its founder: We forbid encroachment by us and against us,” media activist al-Halabi said. The founder’s positions were based on “the principle of action and reaction with the regime, not developed for factions opposed to the regime, and it continues to this day,” he added.
In response to Laith al-Balous’ accusations surrounding al-Hajjar thanking Bashar al-Assad, Halabi noted that “Sheikh Wahid al-Balous previously thanked the president of the republic on video in 2014, after a kidnapping incident between Daraa and the mountain [Suwayda], and he himself participated in the 2014 presidential election and voted for Bashar al-Assad.”
“The Men of Dignity movement’s rhetoric today is below what is required, despite the accumulating crises in the province and the regime’s penetration into it,” Syrian writer and politician Hafez Karkout, who is from Suwayda, told Syria Direct. The movement bases its popularity “on the legacy left to it by the martyr Sheikh Wahid al-Balous,” he added.
Based on the faction’s recent stance, “some have moved away from it, and for a segment of young people it has become a source of ridicule,” he added.
The Men of Dignity media source said the faction has not changed its central policy, and is “steadfast in the proposition of the martyr Wahid al-Balous, who said we are not supporters and we are not opponents,” he said. “The movement was the tip of the spear in confronting and uprooting security-affiliated gangs, such as Raji Falout[’s group].”
The source continued by accusing Laith al-Balous, saying “whoever sold the personal weapon of the martyr Sheikh Wahid al-Balous to the so-called Raji Falhout has no right to talk about the path of the [Men of] Dignity today.” He referred to accusations directed at Laith al-Balous of selling his father’s weapon to the commander of the Fajr Forces, affiliated with Syrian military security, which were uprooted last July.
Laith al-Balous: Losing the compass
As al-Halabi sees it, Laith al-Balous is trying to restore his father’s legacy, “aspiring to be a leader on the mountain, and a military commander of the movement.” He warned that “whoever is planting these ideas in Laith’s head is driving him to a place that is not good, and could reach a state of military clash with the Men of Dignity, which would serve the regime.”
Some are trying to “put Laith forward as a face for the province, but in reality he does not hold the same status that he is imagined to,”al-Halabi said. “His weight relies only on his father’s legacy.”
On the other hand, it appears that the son “is not satisfied with the movement’s performance, and has taken a position on it, the reason for which has not been announced,” Karkout said. In his view, the reason may be “the movement’s departure from the basic line for which it was formed.”
“The role of the movement has become closer to social niceties, and there is a difference between what the movement does with its shifting words, that have not been at the level required, and between what Sheikh Laith does clearly in his rhetoric, declaring his opposition to the regime with courage and stubbornness,” he added.
Syrian academic and dissident Yahya al-Aridi agreed with the suggestion that “Laith takes issue with the softness and diplomacy that no longer works with the authoritarian system, and which he does not provide. He knows that it and Hezbollah are behind his father’s murder.” In his view, “Laith’s position is the voice of the people, and the voice of those who have no voice, in clarifying what the province has come to in terms of sedition, chaos and drugs.”
However, the media source from the Men of Dignity contended that behind Laith al-Balous’s prominence is an attempt to build him up by Malek Abu al-Khair, the head of the Brigade Party. He accused al-Balous of “taking money from the party for personal ambitions.”
He also accused al-Balous of “violating the directive of his late father, the martyr Wahid al-Balous, who was working on a unified Arab Syrian proposal, not a sectarian separatist [one].” He referred to the Brigade Party “working on a Druze self-administration project, with Malek Abu al-Khair as its president,” and accused the party and al-Balous of crimes and incitement against “the rest of the province’s sects.”
“Closeness between Laith and Malek points to the Brigade Party changing its policy in the province after the commander of the Anti-Terrorism Force affiliated with the party, Samer al-Hakim, was killed last summer,” al-Halabi said. After the faction was largely eliminated, “Malek Abu al-Khair is working on marketing for Laith, in an attempt to make him a bargaining chip in his own hand and for his political project.”
Responding to that, Abu al-Khair, told Syria Direct “we have no hostility or disagreement with the Men of Dignity movement, and we did not incite or intervene in any activities against the movement.” He stressed “the party’s statements have not attacked or mentioned the movement in any word, and we have nothing to do with the internal defections happening within it.”
Abu al-Khair denied that al-Balous is affiliated with the Brigade Party or has received information or support from it, calling that narrative rumors. “Laith doesn’t need to take instructions from the Brigade Party or others,” he said.
On the other hand, Abu al-Khair did not deny that his party adopts “the idea of federal rule, openly” and seeks for the coming Syria to be “a federal Syria in the footsteps of developed countries that support this type of rule.” In the end, when talking about self-rule or other political projects, “it is not the Brigade Party that decides it, but rather the society in Suwayda, in all its components, through civilized democratic work,” he said.
Under these circumstances, writer Karkout expects for the internal disputes in the ranks of the Men of Dignity to develop further, attributing that to the “slackening” of the movement in general.
But this does not mean matters will reach the point of “an armed clash between Laith al-Balous and the Men of Dignity,” according to al-Halabi. “Laith’s size cannot be compared with the movement, in terms of the social and religious dimension, and numbers and materiel.”
On that, the media source in the Men of Dignity said “the movement does not point its weapons inside, especially since Sheikh Yahya al-Hajjar stated several days ago not to allow the security forces to threaten the Madafa of the martyr Sheikh Wahid al-Balous,” following threats made by one regime officer towards it amid protests in the province.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.