AMMAN- The number of kidnappings in Suweida governorate has sharply increased in the last four months, frightening a governorate which stayed relatively quiet during the Syrian civil war.
The most recent kidnapping incident was on Wednesday, July 24, when Omar Kassem Hasaba and his father were chased by a car with no license plate who had tried to kidnap them at gun-point. The kidnapping only failed because nearby women noticed what was happening and began to shout. The kidnappers, however, shot the two men before fleeing, leading to moderate injuries for both, according to reports from local media outlets.
A few days earlier, a clothes trader from Aleppo governorate was kidnapped by “a local gang” on the way between Salkhad and Suweida cities. Soon after, the kidnappers sent a picture to his wife showing him being beaten and tortured, and demanding that she pay a ransom of around two million Syrian Lira (approx. $4,000).
After two days of negotiations through dignitaries from Suweida, the trader was released for one million Syrian Lira (approx. $2000), and taken to a hospital to receive treatment for the beatings, Riyan Ma’aroof, a media activist with ‘Suwayda 24’, a local news organization, told Syria Direct.
About 90% of the governorate’s inhabitants are Druze, according to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The province attained a measure of political autonomy during the Syrian revolution, as the Druze political leadership has thus far focused on internal affairs, while local military factions have largely limited themselves to defending the region from external attacks.
Unprecedented security chaos
Southern Syria, in general, is no stranger to kidnapping incidents, especially in the eastern area connected to the Badya (desert). However, with the entry of government forces into southern Syria, specifically the Daraa and Quneitra governorates, in July 2018, kidnappings have become “an issue inside [the city of Suweida],” Daham Abu Waheed (a pseudonym), a prominent figure in the governorate’s Druze community, told Syria Direct.
The area’s security concerns extend past kidnappings. On July 2, a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded near downtown Suweida city, killing three and wounding eight. The explosion targeted “an area close to one of the churches,” Noora al-Basha, a local media activist, told Syria Direct. “[The area] is densely populated, and [there are] several restaurants and hotels [there].”
The explosion occurred on the anniversary of the bloodiest terrorist incident in Suweida’s history when ISIS fighters attacked several villages in the governorate’s eastern countryside and two suicide bombers detonated in downtown Suweida in July 2018. More than 200 people were killed and 300 were injured, civilians and soldiers alike, in addition to 40 women and children being kidnapped by ISIS, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and ‘Suwayda 24’.
Allegations of government complicity
The number of kidnappings in Suweida range from 15-35 incidents per month, according to Ma’aroof.
This can be explained by the “abundance of weapons,” Abu Waheed said, and “thugs who want money to smoke marijuana and cause trouble.”
The proliferation of violence and chaos, he added, is a product of “the involvement of the [security] services at the beginning of the war, [as they] armed many people,” and as a result, “weapons have become widespread in the street and the [security services] have lost control over them.”
Three sources in the governorate have confirmed to Syria Direct that most of the time, those gangs that are perpetrating the kidnappings are known to the city’s residents and that some of them are known to operate on the road between Damascus and Suweida. Gangs are also present on the road to Ariqa, a town in northwest Suweida, inside the city of Suweida, and on the road between Suweida and Salkhad.
“Most [of the gangs] are from the area. They are armed and some of them are part of local militias, [whereas others] worked with the [local] security branches as contractors,” Ma’aroof said. However, despite all this, “the security services are unable to do anything” according to Abu Waheed.
As kidnappings occurred, relatives of those kidnapped would quickly inform the police and security services of the incidents. But, according to Abu Waheed, all the security services would do is to “specify the last location of the victim’s cell phone, or give information about the group that kidnapped their relative in the case that there was information available, without taking any further action.”
“[The security services] would tell people: remove the thorns with your own hands [deal with it yourself].”
Ransoms paid range between one and ten million Syrian Lira ($1,940-$19,400), and in some cases, it reached as high as 50 million Syrian Lira ($97,000), according to Ma’aroof,
In addition to ransoms providing an incentive for kidnapping, two sources from local military factions in Suweida that spoke to Syria Direct accused “the Syrian government and its security apparatuses of being behind many of the kidnappings and the widespread chaos in the governorate.”
According to a source in the media department of the local armed group ‘Rijal al-Karama’ (Men of Dignity), “the role of the corrupt security services in supporting and covering for the gangs is no secret. The security forces are also being negligent in their responsibilities and are failing to carry out their tasks to maintain security in the region and prosecute gangs, which leads to suspicion.”
More than that, a source from another local armed group, ‘Quwat Shahba al-Karama’ (Shahba al-Karama Forces), said that “the security apparatuses and the factions aligned with them in the Jabal [Jabal al-Druze] are working to ruin the governorate and destroy [its] social fabric, [in order to] pressure young men to join the army and militias loyal to the government under the pretext of defending the governorate, as local factions failed to preserve its security.”
However, the source insisted that: “The regime will not honor its promises [to deploy the soldiers within the governorate] and will make our young men fight in Idlib and the countryside of Hama.”
Since 2011, dozens of local armed groups have appeared in Suweida, undertaking the task of defending the governorate and maintaining internal security, while other militias have followed Damascus’s orders and participated in military operations against opposition factions in the province.
In recent years, the government has, for the most part, turned a blind eye to those men in the Suweida who have avoided the mandatory draft and those local factions that work independently of government forces.
However, in November 2018, after the freeing of women and children that had been kidnapped by ISIS in Suweida, Bashar al-Assad called for the people of the governorate to fulfill their obligations and obey their military drafts.
“No one among us defends his village or his province … We defend Syria or we don’t defend [anything at all],” al-Assad said in a meeting with some of the freed victims and their families.
In the same vein, on July 21 a Russian delegation visited the Suweida governorate building in an attempt to encourage the young men of the governorate to join the army and complete their mandatory service. The delegation also discussed “the issue of reconciliation in the southern region,” according to ‘Suwayda 24’.
Social and economic consequences
Kidnappings incidents in southern Syria have, occasionally, contributed to sectarian tension between the residents of (Sunni) Daraa and (Druze) Suweida provinces. Such tension, however, was historically diffused through the efforts of dignitaries in both provinces who have deeply-established relations that include joint resistance to the French occupation in the 20th century.
On another hand, Suweida, like all other rural areas in Syria, is governed by deeply rooted traditional and ethical rules. Violating these rules, especially by kidnapping visitors of the governorate, is widely seen by the Druze as extremely shameful and as something that could isolate the people of Sweida from the rest of the country, according to Abu Waheed.
Nonetheless, many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from other Syrian provinces have decided to leave out of fear of being kidnapped. IDPs have been the preferred targets of local gangs, according to Ma’aroof.
In addition, many traders avoid Suweida, especially after several trucks were robbed and other traders were kidnapped by local gangs. This has led to “an increased economic decline [in] the governorate, which can be felt in the increased prices and a lack of investment,” according to Ma’aroof.
However, the source from the ‘Men of Dignity’ emphasized that “all of the notables in the governorate, from all backgrounds, are cooperating to arrest and prosecute those individuals from gangs.”