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Suwayda sidesteps a ‘spiral of violence’ following clashes

A new security checkpoint in Suwayda city sparked angry protests and armed clashes between local factions and regime forces before an agreement negotiated by local civil and religious leadership averted further escalation. The incident underscores the delicate balance of keeping the peace in the southern province.

26 June 2024

SUWAYDA — The immediate risk of a major outbreak of violence in Syria’s southern Suwayda province was averted on Tuesday after an agreement was reached to remove a newly installed regime checkpoint that sparked protests and armed clashes on Sunday.

Under the agreement, negotiated by civil and religious leadership in communication with local armed factions, a checkpoint established at the northern entrance of Suwayda city is to be converted to an ordinary military position, with no involvement in civilian movements. The deal allows Damascus to save face, meets factions’ demands and addresses fears that a checkpoint would be used to target civilians opposed to the regime.

The latest escalation in Suwayda began on Sunday, after regime forces installed a security checkpoint at Suwayda city’s al-Anqoud roundabout. Residents and local factions saw it as a threat, particularly given reports that the regime has issued a large number of arrest warrants and travel bans targeting those participating in local protests.

Preparations for the al-Anqoud checkpoint began in mid-June, just before the Eid al-Adha holiday. But on Sunday morning, regime forces installed cement barriers and three prefabricated caravans at the location. Four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with medium-caliber Duskha machine guns and heavy military equipment, including a tank, were also brought in.

The checkpoint was to be jointly managed by the local air force intelligence branch, alongside members of the 44th Special Forces Regiment—based between Suwayda city and the town of Qanawat to the north—and regime-affiliated militias made up of locals from the province, most notably the National Defense Forces, a military source in the 44th Regiment told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. 

A nonviolent protest movement calling for reforms and an end to the rule of President Bashar al-Assad has persisted in Druze-majority Suwayda province since August 2023. Demonstrations in Suwayda city’s central al-Karama (Dignity) Square are held daily, alongside a major weekly protest attended by people from across the province. Many of those attending would have had to pass through the planned checkpoint.

Damascus’ response to the movement has varied. At first, the regime outwardly ignored Suwayda’s uprising and sought to appease local community leaders. As protests persisted, regime forces have at times turned to violence—or the insinuation of it. In February, security forces fired on demonstrators, killing one.

Two months later, Damascus deployed military reinforcements to the province and replaced its governor. Protesters doubled down and reemphasized their commitment to nonviolence, undeterred by the threat of a “security solution”: the use of armed force to quell dissent.

Escalation begins

At half past three o’clock on Sunday afternoon, activists in Suwayda put out a call to action under the title “No to the Suwayda Siege.” In response, dozens of civilian activists gathered at the Bassel roundabout, a 20-minute walk due south of the new checkpoint on the Suwayda-Damascus road. From there, they headed to the al-Anqoud roundabout, where they chanted and demanded that regime officers and armed personnel leave.

The protesters then returned to the Bassel roundabout, where they attempted to remove a metal sculpture depicting Bassel al-Assad—the Syrian president’s older brother, who died in 1994 and for whom the roundabout is named. 

At eight o’clock the evening of the same day, local armed factions began to fire on the local Baath Party headquarters, a short distance from the newly established checkpoint, where regime military reinforcements were stationed. This prompted regime officers to “request a one-hour grace period for dialogue,” one source from the local factions’ operations room told Syria Direct

The operations room, formed after the checkpoint was installed on Sunday, includes the Liwa al-Jabal, commanded by Murhij al-Jarmani, Ahrar Jabal al-Arab, led by Suleiman Abdulbaqi, and the Suwayda Local Forces faction.

Regime forces sent for reinforcements from the 44th Regiment, while local factions surrounded the air force intelligence and state security branches inside Suwayda city. They also blocked the Damascus-Suwayda road to prevent any reinforcements from arriving. 

When the one-hour deadline ran out without any solution being reached, local factions resumed targeting the Baath Party building, including with rocket-propelled grenades, while regime forces stationed there responded to the sources of fire. 

Clashes continued until four o’clock on Monday morning, and left a number of local fighters injured, as well as several members of regime forces. 

Early Monday morning, the head of the state security branch, Salem al-Hawsh, promised a number of religious authority figures in Suwayda that it was possible to reach an agreement on the checkpoint, at which point a cautious calm returned. 

 A “temporary suspension of the military operation,” granted daily by local factions, aimed “to give an opportunity for a peaceful solution,” the operations room source said at the time, vowing that “armed action” would resume if no agreement was reached. 

Meanwhile, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of Syria’s Druze, communicated with Russian forces in Syria through Moscow’s embassy in Damascus, denouncing recent security movements by the regime. 

The Russian side said there were no Russian directives to the regime regarding the establishment of checkpoints, and informed Hijri that they are “keen to prevent any confrontation with the civilians and demonstrators,” one local Suwayda Facebook page reported, citing a source close to Druze spiritual leadership.

Tensions were already high in Suwayda before the checkpoint incident. Just two days earlier, Sheikh Raed al-Matni—the commander of the Suwayda Local Forces faction and a prominent religious figure—was abducted by a group affiliated with state security while heading to his home in the eastern Suwayda village of al-Kassib. Al-Matni is known for supporting Suwayda’s anti-Assad movement. 

Al-Matni had refused to comply after he was summoned by the state security branch in Suwayda city, prompting “one of the local gangs collaborating with the branch to abduct him,” the source from the operations room said. 

In response, al-Matni’s faction took four Syrian regime officers hostage the same day, threatening to return them “as corpses” if he was not let go. The following day, al-Matni was released

Al-Matni’s abduction could help explain the level of the response to the checkpoint’s installation on Sunday. While local factions have supported Suwayda’s protest movement, they have not previously been inclined towards direct escalation with regime forces.

Crisis averted, for now

In the days before Tuesday’s agreement was reached to avoid further escalation, activists involved in Suwayda’s protest movement feared the worst. 

Damascus “is repeating the same scenario used in all the rebellious Syrian areas in 2011, attaching the charge of terrorism to them,” human rights activist and protest organizer Ayman Shaibeddin said. “The regime decided to crush pacifism and drag the province into military confrontations by kidnapping Sheikh Raed al-Matni.” 

Emad al-Atrash, another activist participating in Suwayda’s protests, saw the construction of the military checkpoint as a sign that the regime “made up its mind to use the military solution.”

Suleiman Abdulbaqi, the commander of Ahrar al-Jabal faction, posted on Facebook on Sunday warning against the establishment of the security checkpoint at the al-Anqoud roundabout, calling it “a danger to the entire region.”

Despite the recent escalation in Suwayda, local factions remain committed to keeping the province from being dragged into an all-out conflict. Murhij al-Jarmani, the commander of the Liwa al-Jabal faction, told Syria Direct the factions were communicating with religious leaders to prevent the checkpoint from going ahead “through peaceful solutions.” These efforts bore fruit with Tuesday’s agreement.

The Men of Dignity Movement—Suwayda’s largest military faction—was notably absent from the clashes in Suwayda city. It monitored events as they unfolded, but would “not intervene unless the escalation threatens the safety of the people on the mountain,” Abu Taymour, the faction’s media spokesperson, told Syria Direct at the time. 

“The situation in the Syrian south is extremely complicated, and any thoughtless military escalation could engage the region and plunge the province into an unpredictable spiral of violence,” he added.

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. It has been substantially edited and updated to reflect developments that occurred after the original report was published. 

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