March 30, 2015
As Syria’s civil war goes into its fifth year with no signs of letting up, regime forces have begun to increase forced conscription efforts in Suwayda province, sparking dissent in a province that has long been characterized as pro-regime.
Last November, roughly 30 unknown assailants launched an attack on a military intelligence convoy in the village of al-Janina in the Suwayda countryside, freeing a young man in their custody who had been forcibly conscripted and was being transferred to another location to begin training.
Many Druze have been recruited into Syria’s army and state security forces while others have gone so far as to form independent pro-regime militias based in the province.
This past January, a similar assault was launched on a military recruitment center in the Salkhad area, in which a young man who was being detained in preparation to be conscripted into the Syrian armed forces was freed. Further attacks on regime positions in the province have continued sporadically, along with protests orchestrated by Sheikh Wahid al-Balaous, a prominent Druze religious figure whose criticism of the regime and its practices elicited the ire of a number of pro-regime Druze leaders, some of whom have gone so far as to formally strip the former of any religious authority.
Despite dissent in recent months amongst the Druze in Suwayda, the regime has not cracked down on protests, which along with isolated instances of violence amongst the Druze have failed to transform into outright rebellion or armed insurrection.
Nor will it, says Hafez Faraj, 50, a Druze Air Force general who defected from the regime in 2012 and moved to Jordan last year.
For the Druze, “there’s no real alternative to the regime,” Faraj tells Syria Direct’s Moatassim Jamal. “The opposition lacks a clear vision for Syria’s future, and its practices often sabotage attempts to achieve national unity.”
Q: Despite the ongoing protests in Suwayda, why do some Druze continue to stand by the regime? Are they fearful of what might happen if the regime is overthrown? What are their main fears?
First of all, the percentage of Druze who stand by the regime isn’t any more than the Sunnis or any other segment of Syria’s population. The difference between us and the Sunnis is that for us, there’s no real alternative to the regime, seeing as the opposition lacks a clear vision for Syria’s future, and its practices often sabotage attempts to achieve national unity.
Furthermore, Druze citizens who have defected from the regime and established military councils in Suwayda have been marginalized by the opposition and haven’t received any material support. This has led Druze to have a lack of confidence in the opposition. However it must be made clear, the Druze do not represent a mere cog in the regime machine.
Druze religious figures in Suwayda protest against the regime in April 2014.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your own personal opinion regarding the latest events in Suwayda?
Popular anger has existed towards the regime since the beginning of the revolution, however the forced conscription and death of hundreds of Druze from the Suwayda area in recent months pushed people over the limit. Druze men have been forced to fight alongside the regime in an unjust war against the Syrian people since the beginning of the uprising, however now it has gotten worse.
Furthermore, the perpetual state of lawlessness seen within the country along with the opposition’s inability to create a sense of national unity or delineate a clear path for Syria’s future has further torn apart the country’s social fabric. As a result, people take refuge in sectarian and tribal affiliations, as opposed to a national identity, due to regime oppression and the silence of the international community.
Q: What is it exactly that the Druze want from these protests? A new leader? Or can these protests be interpreted as paving the way for the establishment of an independent Druze statelet in the future?
No, there isn’t anyone amongst the Druze who desires or even thinks about establishing an independent state. This idea was rejected in the past and remains the case now. Sheikh al-Balaous has stated publicly many times that the people of Suwayda support the idea of a united Syria, in its entirety, and are ready to defend that idea, beginning with Qamishlo and Hasakah, and all other contested territories.
Our goal isn’t to secure special rights or privileges for ourselves, quite the opposite, our goal is to struggle against sectarianism and attempts by the regime to exploit religious minorities for their own benefit.
Q: Do you think these protests could lead to full-scale armed uprising against the regime in Suwayda?
That depends on the response of the regime and the extent of its excesses. The regime doesn’t want, and indeed fears, a clash with the Druze, as that would deprive it of being able to pull the, “defender of minorities,” card which it has used until now to justify its survival.
Q: As a former military man, what was your view of the uprising when it first started, when you were still in the army?
I had always criticized corruption within the army, the monopolization of power by the Alawites, ever since the beginning of my military service. For that reason, I was imprisoned and investigated a number of times by Syrian intelligence, and often denied opportunities for promotion.
Q: What do you think of Sheikh Wahid al-Balaous and the actions of his organization? Do you think he’s genuinely interested in protecting the people of Suwayda or does he have an ulterior motive?
The “Sheikhs of Dignity” movement, which Sheikh Wahid al-Balaous is a part of, came about in reaction to the excesses of the regime in Suwayda, and the locals’ rejection of its practices and attempts to drag the Druze into its fight against the Syrian people.
Q: So they’re not mobilizing people for any ulterior motive?
No, the primary impetus of the movement is popular resentment and outrage against regime practices and the Druze people’s refusal to take part in a war against their Syrian brothers. This has been made clear by the more than 10,000 Druze fighters who have refused calls for mandatory enlistment in the Syrian army.
Q: What’s your opinion of Sheikh al-Balaous as a person, rather than the organization he runs?
Sheikh Waheed al-Balaous is a religious man, not an opposition figure or regime sympathizer, and doesn’t involve himself in politics. His goal is to protect people’s “land and honor” and the young men who are wanted by the army but refuse to enlist because they refuse to fight their Syrian brothers.
Right now, Syria is divided between ruling minorities that control the state, and society at large which as a result has embraced sectarianism and acts of revenge. Those minorities like the Druze who are patriotic and remain committed to supporting the idea of a united Syria, and have never sought, even for one day, the establishment of an independent, Druze state.