The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army captured the Liwa 52 military base in eastern Daraa province in a matter of hours on Tuesday, striking a decisive blow against regime prospects in the province.
The capture of the second-largest base in the country is only part of a rebel strategy in the southern provinces of Daraa and Suwayda that aims to bring together various groups in a united front against the regime.
As rebels gain ground in Sunni-majority Daraa, rebels have aimed at “increasing coordination between [the FSA] and other players in [Druze majority] Suwayda” Essam Rayes, spokesman for the Southern Front in Daraa tells Syria Direct’s Moutasem Jamal.
Following the recent release of two Christian men abducted from a village in Suwayda by Daraa residents, the Southern Front released an announcement last month promising to hold those involved in the crimes responsible and calling on Suwayda’s Mashayikh al-Aql (Druze spiritual community leaders) for help in investigating and preventing abductions.
“The ball is in their court now and we ask that they take the initiative” in securing the release of Daraa abductees held in Suwayda, ar-Rayes says, “[so] the kidnappers will see that there is cooperation and coordination on both sides.”
The abductions that have plagued Daraa and Suwayda residents for more than two years take a toll on residents and threaten “to provoke sectarian conflict,” he adds.
Suwayda-led abductions have largely been “a response to kidnapping operations by Daraa [residents,]” says Hafez Faraj, a defected Druze Syrian Air Force general from Suwayda province now living in Jordan.
“This discord benefits the regime,” Faraj, who defected in 2012, tells Moutasem Jamal, “especially since it is between the Sunni sect and the Druze sect. The Druze are a minority, and the regime portrays itself as a protector of minorities.”
Changing realities on the ground challenge this portrayal, as Suwayda’s Druze leadership takes an increasingly adversarial posture towards the regime after years of conditional neutrality that occasionally put them at odds with FSA rebels, who interpreted the position as pro-regime.
In recent months, aiming at a successful long-term campaign in the south, the FSA has sought to undermine familiar regime narratives that place all minority groups under its protection by reaching out to Druze Suwayda.
“Our main concern in the Southern Front and the FSA is the preservation of the Syrian social fabric, because any destabilization” like that caused by kidnappings, Rayes asserts, “will help Assad to use the Druze minority as a tool to keep himself in power.”
Essam Rayes, spokesman for the Southern Front in Daraa
What real, practical steps are the factions of the Southern Front taking to limit the phenomenon of these abductions? Are there concrete steps on the ground?
In the announcement we released, we called on the Mashayikh al-Aql [spiritual leaders of Druze community] to take the initiative in the return of some of those kidnapped from Daraa. The Southern Front, as promised secured the return of the Kharaba detainees from the Druze sect to their loved ones.
The ball is in their court now, and we ask that they take the initiative in freeing those kidnapped in Daraa because that will encourage the people of Daraa to return those abducted from Suwayda, and the kidnappers will see that there is cooperation and coordination from both sides.
This will make any person think twice before committing a kidnapping, because he knows that he may be attacked and that the Mashayikh could give a fatwa [religious ruling] for his arrest. So he may think about stopping this trade, or this revenge, and this is very important.
As for us as the Southern Front, many of the people in Daraa would not dare to abduct [anybody], because they know that the FSA will pursue them and that the Southern Front will call for his arrest or set a trap for him during the exchange.
So, kidnapping is not as easy as it used to be, and when the Mashayikh al-Aql extend a helping hand like we extended to them, then it is certain that the kidnappers, whether they are from Daraa or Suwayda, will stop.
Suwayda and Daraa rebels meet after freeing kidnap victims, pledge solidarity against Assad. Photo courtesy of SMO Syria.
Who is behind the kidnappings against the people of Suwayda and Daraa? Do they have any relationship with the revolutionary factions in Daraa?
In most cases, those who carry out the kidnappings are gangs calling themselves revolutionaries, but they are not. They may be armed, but just being armed does not make them revolutionaries.
These gangs kidnap for ransom or other extrajudicial reasons.
From the Southern Front’s perspective, any illegal act with the goal of demanding money is criminal and unlawful, and the perpetrators will be held accountable.
According to those we have arrested and interrogated, the kidnappers [from Daraa] are from neighboring villages and most of them want money, nothing more.
As for the kidnappings by Suwayda residents crossing into Daraa province, they are counter-kidnappings, reactions and sometimes revenge.
Druze shabiha [regime-supporting militia groups] have fought with the National Defense Forces but we know that they do not represent the Druze sect. Some of those people were killed in clashes and battles in Daraa, so they took revenge by kidnapping guiltless people from the Sunni sect in Daraa because of their ignorance and because they wanted revenge.
Where exactly are the areas in which these kidnappings are carried out?
[They happen in] the areas to the east of Daraa and the west of Suwayda, the overlapping regions between the two provinces.
For example, the latest kidnapping happened in east Daraa in the Kharaba village which belongs administratively to the Suwayda province.
These liminal areas are where kidnappings occur, because they are also the areas where there is contact and movement and random checkpoints, and these are the areas exposed to danger.
In what ways do these kidnappings affect the relationship between the people of Daraa and the people of Suwayda? Especially [given] that the people of Suwayda are very upset about these acts?
We are all upset about these operations, and this matter poses a danger to the social fabric of Syria.
Our main concern in the Southern Front and the FSA is the preservation of the Syrian social fabric, because any destabilization will have a negative impact on the course of our operations, and will help Assad to use the Druze minority as a tool to keep himself in power.
Kidnappings provoke sectarian conflict and Bashar al-Assad’s narrative that there are instances of [sectarian] revenge. It helps him to portray the war as though it is a civil war, as he claims it to be, and that his staying in power will protect minorities.
What are the main reasons that drive kidnappers to commit these abductions?
The main reason is to put pressure on the regime to free detainees, but this does not succeed. It makes no sense to kidnap people and demand those held by the regime. The regime does not care about the Syrian, unless he is from its sect [Alawite].
It makes no difference to the regime, so this method is useless with it, and so it is not convincing [to say] that they kidnap in order to demand that the regime release detainees.
The Southern Front released an announcement about the kidnapping victims from Suwayda, denouncing these operations and promising to respond to the perpetrators. Why did the Southern Front publish this announcement, given that kidnappings have been occurring for the past two years, or more?
It is true that the kidnappings have happened for a long time. The reason now is the reality of increasing coordination between us and other players in Suwayda.
When a group of kidnappers abducted two young Christian men from the village of Kharaba, there was coordination between their families and factions of the Southern Front.
They told us their sons had been kidnapped and [asked] if we could help them, so we coordinated with them. They gave us information about the place of the kidnapping and the timing of the exchange for the ransom payment. This enabled us to set a trap for the kidnappers and to catch them.
There are also good people from the families of the kidnappers who give us information about how, where, and when the kidnapping occurred, which also helps us pursue them.
Was any member of the factions belonging to the Southern Front among those involved in these kidnappings? And if anyone did, how did you deal with him?
The group leader [would] immediately order his detention and place him under a judicial tribunal recognized in the area. But it must be proved that this person is from the Southern Front. Don’t tell me that this kidnapper is a commander from Jabhat a-Nusra or the Islamic State. I cannot create a war, exposing the life of the kidnapping victim also to danger, and displace the whole area just to capture one person from Nusra or IS if he did [something] wrong.
There is a high court that exists, and every group is under its purview, even the Nusra factions are under it, and if a complaint is filed, the court will deal with it. But as for the Southern Front groups, we are [only] responsible for the groups of the Southern Front.
What do you expect for the future regarding the issue of abductions between Daraa and Suwayda?
I can’t promise you anything, but we will spare no effort in returning those kidnapped. We have the names and number of those we know from both sides, and all of the people began to contact us on Facebook and social media sites, asking for our help in previous kidnappings or old [cases] of those disappeared for a long period.
We do not have great hope that we will get to all of them but we will spare no effort, each kidnap victim, no matter what his sect, is a brother of mine and of all of the Southern Front leadership.
Hafez Faraj, Druze Air Force general, defected 2012
There have been recurrent kidnappings between Suwayda and Daraa. Why is this happening?
They happen repeatedly, and will continue to do so. For people in Suwayda who participate in kidnappings, [it is] primarily as a response to kidnapping operations by Daraa [residents].
For example, a Druze individual from Suwayda was kidnapped while at a friend’s in Daraa on personal business. Consequently, a group of his relatives kidnapped nine workers from Daraa who were working in Suwayda.
There is also the intent of profit and [sowing] discord, and to pin the responsibility [for the kidnappings] onto Jabhat a-Nusra.
For example, a group of young men from Suwayda were kidnapped and a video appeared the next day showing a group from Nusra demanding ransom with the kidnapped men in front of them. But this group was not from Nusra and the proof of that is that after it freed the victims, the [so-called] Nusra group disappeared. So the goal here was only creating discord.
This discord benefits the regime, especially since it is between the Sunni sect and the Druze sect. The Druze are a minority, and the regime portrays itself as a protector of minorities.