9 min read  | Politics, Suwayda

Suwayda factions: Uprooting ‘the gangs’ or consolidating power?


September 13, 2022

PARIS — Syria’s southern province of Suwayda is in an “unexpected” state of internal conflict after local factions eliminated the controversial Dawn Forces, a regime military security-linked faction led by Raji Falhout, in July.

After Falhout’s faction was eliminated and its leader went into hiding, the Men of Dignity—a local Druze faction formed to defend Suwayda province that participated in the July campaign to eliminate the Dawn Forces—vowed to continue and expand the campaign. The purpose of the operation is “to pursue the gangs trafficking drugs and kidnapping and extorting people, especially those affiliated with military security,” said Abu Taymour, the head of the Men of Dignity’s media wing. 

As part of the broader campaign to root out “those involved,” local factions mobilized against the al-Fahd Forces led by Salim Humeid, on August 14. As a result, the faction, another group backed by Damascus’ military security, was dismantled and its leader turned himself in to the commander of the Liwa al-Jabal faction, Murhij al-Jarmani. Liwa al-Jabal participated in recent campaigns against regime-linked factions in Suwayda alongside the Men of Dignity. Al-Jarmani later released Humeid, renewing inter-factional tensions in the Druze-majority province. 

Humeid, speaking to Syria Direct from an undisclosed location, accused the Men of Dignity, one of the main actors taking part in operations against other factions since July, of the same charges levied at himself: “dealing with military security and other security agencies” belonging to the Syrian regime. 

He claimed the Men of Dignity were using the campaign to “take control of the public scene in Suwayda, and create pretexts to dominate the rest of the factions.” While there is broad support in Suwayda for the recent operations against groups described as “gangs” by the Men of Dignity and other factions, the accusation that the campaign is a power grab is a dangerous one, as Suwayda’s current crisis is the first direct, internal Druze confrontation since 2011.

A new military map

Since protests began in Syria in spring 2011, Suwayda has not distanced itself from events elsewhere in the country. It has, however, gained a character unlike Syria’s other provinces. The province has not fallen out of the Syrian regime’s hands, but neither is it under its direct rule. Armed groups in Suwayda have also had different goals and ambitions from many others in the country, and the shape of their relationship with Damascus and its security and military agencies is particular to the province. 

“It is a very rare factional situation, because the majority of local military groups in Suwayda were established as family fighting groups, made up of members of a single family, led by its notables, and supported by expatriate members [abroad],” Abu Taymour said. There are also “military groups affiliated with the state” without widespread popularity, he said.

The Men of Dignity, to which Abu Taymour belongs, was founded differently nine years ago: as a military and social movement with a religious nature. Its founder, the Druze Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, was later assassinated in September 2015 when his convoy was blown up. The Syrian regime is accused of responsibility for his death. 

The Men of Dignity gathered its members “from all the villages and towns of the province” Abu Taymour said. The movement “seeks justice, freedom, dignity, equality and a political transition, which are the aspirations of the Syrian people,” he said. 

Still, the situation on the ground in Suwayda is “closer to a map of militias,” said Yahya al-Aridi, a Syrian academic and former spokesperson for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission. Damascus did not follow the same approach in Suwayda as in the rest of the country’s provinces, he said.

Based on Damascus’ claims to be a “protector of minorities,” which Aridi called a “false argument,” it helped create “local gangs” affiliated with its security apparatus and working in its interests in the province, he said. This is “a new method it created for itself,” with local factions as “tools working to lure the weak and recruit them to do what the regime wants,” he added.

Since the 2015 assassination of al-Balous, factions known to have an oppositional stance towards the Syrian regime have had little influence in the province. But on the tails of the recent military campaign against individuals implicated in kidnappings and drug smuggling, “the power of the attacking factions, such as the Men of Dignity, Liwa al-Jabal, and groups from the Tawil family and the town of Ariqa has grown,” according to Rayan Maarouf, director of the local Suwayda 24 network covering events in the province. 

This alliance “rose to prominence after the militias linked to military security were removed and broken up in various ways, either through agreements or military and security operations,” he said. 

But although the operation against military security-linked groups like Humeid’s al-Fahd Forces is coordinated between several local groups, he focused on the role of the Men of Dignity. He claimed they “will attack other factions,” including Liwa al-Jabal, one of the factions working alongside them, “under the pretext that it released me,” Humeid said. 

The Men of Dignity called Humeid’s release from custody in August “an individual decision by the leadership of one of the factions” and launched a military campaign on August 29 against “criminals who have been released.” 

Spokesperson Abu Taymour denied that the Men of Dignity have any ambition to control the factions that are “not affiliated with the security agencies.” He noted that regional and familial factions in the province “supported us during operations against the gangs.” 

Maarouf thought it unlikely that the Men of Dignity would consolidate power and become “the sole faction in the region,” pointing to “major tribal and social complexities.” Additionally, unless there is “popular desire to root out [any] particular faction,” it would be “difficult to launch a campaign against it, even if the military factions [such as Men of Dignity] had the strength and intent to do so,” he said. 

His reading of the situation in Suwayda is based on “the delay in the operation against the military security gangs because of social sensitivity, which forces the factions to treat each other as members of a single community.” Accordingly, “I don’t expect the Men of Dignity intend to gnaw at the rest of the factions,” Maarouf said. 

‘Men of Dignity’ and religious authority

The Men of Dignity faction was founded as a social movement with a primarily religious nature and authority, as embodied by its founder, al-Balous, and his successor Sheikh Abu Hassan Yahya al-Hajar, its current general commander. It has interacted pragmatically with Syria’s reality, its ambitions varying alongside the reality on the ground.

The faction is the most organized model among the Druze factions ruled by traditional religious and social leaders, but has not been in complete harmony with the Sheikhs of Reason: the highest religious authority for the Druze in Suwayda province. 

Still, the military campaign against Falhout and “the gangs” led by the Men of Dignity with the participation of other factions was boosted by an announcement of support by the religious authority, through Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri. This improved relations, as it appears Suwayda’s factions were waiting for the statement from the Sheikhs of Reason as a religious mandate in support of their campaign against military security-linked groups. 

Abu Taymour described the Men of Dignity’s relationship with the Sheikhs of Reason as “strong and solid,” particularly with al-Hijri, who “gave the religious and social cover for the Men of Dignity and other factions in the latest operation. His words motivated us and the people who cooperated with us.” 

But this relationship was not the same in the early years of the Syrian revolution. In 2015, tensions between the Men of Dignity and Sheikhs of Reason were extremely tense, and religious authorities removed the status of Sheikh from al-Balous after he verbally attacked the head of the Syrian regime, saying “we are more patriotic than Bashar al-Assad.”

Today, the Men of Dignity affirm that “the Sheikhs of Reason are the supreme religious and social authority in the province,” Abu Taymour said, and strive to be “close to all actors, with the Sheikhs of Reason at their head.” 

In al-Aridi’s view, “it is not possible to be certain about the goals of this rapprochement, and the reason for harmony between the youth force called the Men of Dignity and the Sheikhs of Reason.” He expects the Suwayda public to support a closer relationship between the faction and the province’s religious leaders “if it is in the interest of the province and its security and dignity.” But if closer ties come with “links to the system of tyranny in one form or another, and if the primary and essential purpose [of closer ties] is to serve the tyrannical authority as its tools, then I think the fate [of such a relationship] would be uglier than that of Raji Falhout.” 

Relationship with the regime

In recent years, Druze factions in Suwayda have taken a stance of “positive neutrality.” They are neither loyal to the regime, nor do they oppose it. At the head of these factions are the Men of Dignity, who raised the threshold of opposition somewhat when they “took open stances against forced conscription and devoted their efforts to defending honor and land in the province,” Maarouf said. At the same time, the faction “has maintained its rhetoric to this day, and since its founding has not made any call for autonomy in the south.” 

This situation allowed Suwayda’s factions to maintain channels of communication with the Syrian regime and its security services, Maarouf said. These channels “have not been cut,” but “differ from one military group to another,” he added. “The local factions, with the exception of those affiliated with military security, deal with the regime to seek stability and resolve security issues, which is what the Men of Dignity movement does. It deals with the matter similarly to the central negotiating committees in Daraa, trying to stop clashes, [promote] calm and prevent tension.” 

As for armed groups affiliated with military security, they act with “security authorization” from Damascus, Abu Taymour stressed. He cited the response of the Head of Military Intelligence, Major General Kifah Mulhim, to a complaint filed by notables from Shahba city against the Falhout group. The answer, he said, was that “Falhout is doing state work with a legal and official mandate as an officer of justice in the province.” 

Today, despite the uprooting and dismantling of the two largest groups in Suwayda affiliated with military security, “we cannot say that the project is over—there are cells and other individuals enlisted to do the same acts as Falhout,” al-Aridi said. So the question arises, “Who is the candidate for Raji’s role after what happened?” 

On the other hand, after the latest campaign against “gangs” in Suwayda, any person must “think a thousand times before setting up a checkpoint to terrorize people, or manufacturing and smuggling drugs,” al-Aridi said. 

But “the regime has other tools,” he said, to “strike the consensus that emerged in Suwayda over the past two months, by striking the Men of Dignity with other factions, striking Abu Hassanal-Hajar [the commander of the Men of Dignity] in his personal capacity with others, as well as carrying out acts and aiming them at others in order to foment disorder,” al-Aridi said. This indirect policy is the one used in Suwayda, which “the regime failed to deal with in the same way as the rest of the provinces, using barrel [bombs] and heavy weapons, since it’s a minority [province],” he added. 

As the Men of Dignity’s star rises and the people of Suwayda rally around it to confront “the gangs,” the faction’s relations with the regime have become “almost tense,” Abu Taymour said. But “the authorities and security bodies in the [province] are showing responsiveness to the movement’s demands, which are based on the demands of the people,” he added. 

There are “efforts for appeasement,” Abu Taymour said, but improving relations with Damascus “depends on the extent of its response to the demands of the Syrian people in general, and on it stopping its support for the gangs that practice terrorism, kidnapping and looting” in Suwayda.

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This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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