AMMAN — On March 29, a funeral was held in Suwayda province for 15 young men killed two days earlier in violent clashes with gunmen affiliated with the Russian-backed Fifth Corps in the city of Busra al-Sham, east of Daraa province.
The clashes, which lasted for several hours and are considered the largest of their kind since Syrian government forces captured southern Syria in Summer of 2018, broke out in the town of al-Qurayya, west of Suwayda, over mutual accusations of kidnapping in both provinces. The intensity of the violence and the mutual distrust are raising the threat of “larger confrontations,” according to sources from the two neighboring provinces.
According to a media source from the Fifth Corps who spoke to Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity, a Fifth Corps patrol came under fire while conducting a mission “to prevent kidnapping operations on the road between al-Qurayya and Busra al-Sham.” The clashes resulted in the death of one fighter and the injury of two more, and led to “clashes between the patrol and the opposing gunman,” the Fifth Corps source said.
However, Rayan Marouf, the editor of the opposition-leaning Suwayda 24 Network local news outlet, attributed the cause of the clashes to “an attempt by gunmen from Busra al-Sham to sneak into al-Qurayya to kidnap civilians residents of the town in response to the kidnapping of two persons from Busra al-Sham by a gang from Suwayda earlier to secure a ransom for them.”
The clashes erupted, Marouf told Syria Direct, due to the failure of the kidnapping attempt by the Fifth Corps. Fifth Corps’ fighters opened fire in the ensuing struggle, causing the death of a civilian from the town and the injury of two more.
Fanning the flames
Following the clashes, the Fifth Corps fighters took the bodies of two Suwayda gunmen to Busra al-Sham, the media source said. However, according to residents of Suwayda, the two captured fighters were still alive when they were taken to Daraa, but were later killed in the hospital in Busra al-Sham.
“The two fighters were on the frontline. They ran out of ammunition and got injured,” Marouf added. “Their death was announced later.”
Pro-government social media pages later published photos of the casualties from Suwayda, reinforcing the accusations leveled at the Fifth Corps. Marouf interpreted the photos as a provocation, explaining that “photographing the two bodies by the military security and spreading them on social media was intended to fuel anger and strife in the two provinces.”
In the same vein, a media officer affiliated with Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity) movement, a Druze-led opposition militia, told Syria Direct that “there have not been military activities in al-Qurayya since the night of the attack. However, some factions have been patrolling the town.”
He called on “our people in Houran [Daraa] to denounce [the Fifth Corps’s commander in Busra al-Sham], Ahmad al-Aouda, and work to hold him accountable.”
The source from the Rijal al-Karama accused the residents of Daraa of not taking a strong enough stance regarding recent events, noting that “when the looting of furniture and possessions happened to the houses in Daraa, during the last military operations [by the government forces] in July 2018, several statements were issued by all entities in the [Druze] Mountain, warning of the stolen money and banning it from being used. But we have not seen a stand by our people in Daraa against the kidnapping and theft that the people of the mountain are subject to.”
In March 2015, Syria Direct obtained audio recordings of conversations between a member of Mashiakhat al-Akl (al-Akl Sheikhdom) in Suwayda, the highest authority of the Druze community in Syria, and one of the dignitaries of Busra al-Sham, discussing mediation to secure the release of kidnapped persons from the two provinces.
In one of the recordings, the member of Mashiakhat al-Akl commended Ahmad al-Aouda—who was the commander of the Shabab a-Sunnah opposition armed group before the Reconciliation Agreement with Damascus—for his efforts to release two kidnapped residents of Suwayda. The recording came after al-Aouda’s mediation with elders in Daraa for the release of kidnapped persons from both sides.
Kidnapping and counter-kidnapping operations between Daraa and Suwayda province have been an issue for years, a result of the proliferation of gangs that have sprung up to extort local citizens. Some of these gangs are connected with the Syrian security apparatus, which provides gang members with “reconciliation cards” issued by Damascus to facilitate their movement.
The Suwayda 24 Network documented the kidnapping of four people from Suwayda by “unknown gangs” in early 2020 in Daraa. In 2019, 25 residents of Daraa were kidnapped by local armed groups and families from Suwayda as leverage to demand the release of seven kidnapped residents of Suwayda by armed factions in Daraa.
One such victim, Dr. Muhammad Anas al-Hariri, was kidnapped in November 2019 on his way home from work at the national hospital in Suwayda. He was kidnapped by a family from Suwayda who had one of its members kidnapped in Daraa. This was followed the next day by the kidnapping of Waed Nasrallah Nasr from Suwayda countryside.
In contrast, in November 2019, the family of Gharz al-Din released Ibrahim Ismail al-Rifaie from Daraa province after he was kidnapped in retaliation for the kidnapping of a member of the Gharz al-Din family in Daraa. The latter indicated in a statement that the release was “a gesture of goodwill, to accelerate the release of the remaining detainees in the two provinces, and to restore peace and security to the people of Daraa and Suwayda.”
In addition to mutual kidnapping between the two provinces, local kidnapping has also been taking place. In Suwayda in particular, Suwayda 24 Network revealed that 151 civilians were kidnapped in 2019 and held for ransom. At the start of 2020, 122 of them had been released in exchange for money, while 12 more were released after pressure was put on the perpetrators. In January and February alone, 22 more civilians were kidnapped by unknown gangs seeking ransom, in addition to seven others whose disappearance was attributed to local factions within the governorate.
Coexistence at threat
The recent kidnapping fervor, along with the clashes in the town of al-Qurayya, have raised concerns that the tenuous calm that exists in al-Qurayya and Busra al-Sham may soon be over.
On the day of the confrontation between the Fifth Corps and unknown gunmen, a Russian delegation arrived to mediate “the delivery of the bodies of Suwayda’s residents through the Syrian Red Crescent,” according to the media source with the Fifth Corps, who added that “notables from Daraa intervened to restore peace.” However, “until now the situation has not been definitively resolved,” the source said.
This was confirmed by Marouf, who said that “some of the notables of Suwayda have said that they contacted the Russians to put pressure on the Fifth Corps to deliver the two bodies and the two children who had been kidnapped at the time of the clashes.”
On Saturday, a joint statement was issued by several notables in Daraa and Suwayda stressing coexistence and the need to “quell sedition” between the two neighboring provinces. However, kidnapping continues, targeting both civilians and military personnel.
On Saturday evening, an unidentified group hijacked a taxi carrying three members of the government forces from the city of Suwayda and deployed in Daraa province, as they passed through the town of Busr Al-Harir, east of Daraa. This was preceded by the kidnapping of a man from the town in Suwayda ten days earlier. After that, a young man from Suwayda was kidnapped on Friday in Busr al-Harir. While the three military personnel were released on Sunday, kidnappers kept the taxi driver until the release of the man from Busr al-Harir.
“We cannot consider the situation to be resolved, as the issue has taken on a tribal dimension,” Marouf said, noting that “in places like Daraa and Suwayda, these situations are not solved in a day or two. It is possible that without a tribal reconciliation new conflicts could explode, and more blood could be spilled.”
While the Rijal al-Karama member reaffirmed “the historic relationship between Daraa and Suwayda,” which he described as “a familial bond,” he also called on Daraa to halt its abusive behavior. He also emphasized “the Russian and Syrian governments’ responsibility for the blood that was shed by the Fifth Corps of the Syrian Army.”
A version of this report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder and Nada Atieh.