April 16, 2015
The rebel capture of the historic city of Busra a-Sham in southeastern Daraa province rekindled fears in nearby Druze-majority Suwayda province that rebels, principally Jabhat a-Nusra and other hardline Islamist groups, would turn east.
The regime-affiliated Sheikh of Reason Hikmat al-Hijri (one of three in Suwayda) issued an announcement encouraging local young men to pick up arms alongside a media campaign to drum up recruits. Ultimately, Ziad al-Asmar, the alias of a citizen journalist close to the Sheikhs of Honor, tells Muatasem Jamal that the campaign “did not have any effect on the ground.”
Most Druze in Suwayda, Asmar says, prefer to remain as neutral, a stance often interpreted by the opposition as pro-regime.
“Regarding the conflict today, until now at least, Suwayda has no place in it. Suwayda is not for the regime, this is something important, even if the regime has a presence in it.”
Q: Has the battle for Busra a-Sham increased the fears of Suwayda residents of Jabhat a-Nusra and the FSA?
I can’t say that the battle increased people’s fears. Most residents of Suwayda are not anxious around the battle, but rather towards any extremist takfiri group that might force them to fight.
At the end of the day, the confusion that occurred happened whenever there were battles on the borders of Suwayda. As for the honorable residents of Daraa and the nationalistic FSA leaders, their role remains to remove these anxieties.
Druze National Defense Forces. Photo courtesy of al-Tawhidion al-Judod.
Q: Did the regime’s media coverage of Busra a-Sham promoting the idea that opposition brigades will move into Suwayda stir up sectarian fears among the Druze and the other minorities in Suwayda?
In my opinion, the regime’s media efforts and rumors did not succeed. In comparison with previous events, residents’ reactions were merely anxious, without pulling the people of Suwayda [towards joining the war].
In my opinion, the letters of reassurance issued by the people of Daraa, and especially the Southern Front’s announcement [rejecting Jabhat a-Nusra] helped to diminish sectarian fears. Add to that the fact that it was clear that Jabhat a-Nusra had no role in the Busra a-Sham battle.
However, the honorable people of Daraa are requested to help secure the release of those kidnapped, and to keep in check the thieves and bandits who are still kidnapping. The people of Suwayda have been paying the price of these kidnappings for years.
Q: What is the stance of the Sheikhs of Dignity [Mashaykh al-Karama] towards the victory of Busra a-Sham and its consequences for Suwayda?
The Sheikhs of Dignity acted as usual and proved their rationality in viewing these events. For your information, they have the biggest role in reassuring the people of Suwayda.
As for the regime’s efforts to exploit events in Busra to recruit people, I think those have failed. For your information, this is a fact—not one [of Suwayda’s young men] who was requested to go to Busra to fight answered the call.
Another thing: the Sheikhs of Honor find that Suwayda is not on any side in this silly war that has turned into a Sunni-Shiite war, with my profound respect for the heroes who still preserve their nationalistic dream and are working to achieve it.
But of most of the conflict today, until now at least, Suwayda has no place in it. Suwayda is not for the regime, this is something important, even if the regime has a presence in it.
Q: If the regime failed at influencing, through the media, the people of Suwayda, and if most residents feel that the rebels will not approach the city of Suwayda after recent rebel announcements, why is there still a state of intense anger and fear in Suwayda?
The state of anxiety present in Suwayda was there originally and will remain. It is simply a series of legitimate anxieties required by the extremist image of some of the groups that have taken over the Syrian stage.
But when we say a state of anger, which means that people are out on the streets demanding to be armed in protests, and things like that, demanding on TV that the regime strike with force, all of that has not happened and will not happen.
Suwayda has fears, old fears, but still present, that are only related to a sensitivity towards extremism. In short, the regime is still trying to organize militias and play on the fear present among the religious minorities.
Q: Is it true that Shiite elements in Suwayda are rounding up young men in an army called “Jaish al-Muwahideen” in order to face opposition brigades? Particularly in the villages of Suwayda bordering Daraa and Busra a-Sham, like Baka and Dhibin?
Until now there are no real signs that this is going on. To be honest, we haven’t heard about the Jaish al-Muwahideen except talk on social media websites.
I think that the regime’s attempts to recruit the young men of Suwayda have been there for a long time, but they didn’t succeed in taking in a lot of people.