As the Syria civil war has progressed with both rebels and the Islamic State [IS] encroaching on the territory of Suwayda province from the west and northeast respectively, more distinct militia factions centred on particular personalities have emerged competing for support among the predominantly Druze population: a picture quite different from 1-2 years ago when Druze militias were primarily known by generic brands such as ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ or the familiar pro-Assad Popular Committees. This post looks in-depth at these factions.
Translating as ‘The Homeland Shield’, Dir’ al-Watan is the most recent major pro-Assad faction to have emerged in Suwayda province. It should be noted that Dir’ al-Watan is a name and brand used by other pro-Assad formations in the country, such as the Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra (Quneitra Falcons Brigade) out to the west near the border with Israel. The concept of ‘shield’ forces has also been taken up by newer militias like the Coastal Shield Brigade affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia.
One of the founders of Dir’ al-Watan in Suwayda is Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo, one of the leading pro-Assad figures in Suwayda. In an interview in June, Jerbo affirmed: “Our protection is through the Syrian state…our protection is the Syrian state and our rule of law is the Syrian regime.” Tying Suwayda’s protection to other parts of the remaining regime rump state, he added: “Protection of Suwayda is protection for Damascus, Damascus countryside and Deraa.” On the formation of Dir’ al-Watan, he affirmed: “The establishment of a force called Dir’ al-Watan has become an urgent necessity in view of the latest threat that the province has witnessed from the Islamic State, and the attempt [to penetrate] by fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra organization.” Dir’ al-Watan was also said to be under the leadership of retired Syrian army officers, with a rationale for its existence being that the Syrian army has been fighting for some 4 years and cannot defend every area at once.
Since its inception, one of the main activities of the Dir’ al-Watan has been to engage in outreach and visits to localities across Suwayda province. For example, in the photo below from the village of Barik, including Jerbo and Syrian army brigadier general Nayef al-Aqil, the latter of whom, according to pro-opposition media outlet All4Syria, was already reportedly in charge of forming pro-Assad ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ forces in Suwayda earlier in 2015. This Suwayda version of Iraq’s ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ (Popular Mobilization) that is a brand name for mostly Shi’a militia formations is in reality identical with Dir’ al-Watan.
Dir’ al-Watan outreach to the village of al-Janina to the northeast of Suwayda city. Note the portrait of Bashar al-Assad.
Of interest in this context are the ties between Dir’ al-Watan and a local Druze militia in the area to the northeast of Suwayda city known in full as “Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim” (‘Volcano Mountain: Family of Nu’aim’). Like Dir’ al-Watan, Burkan al-Jabal has demonstrated firm loyalty to Assad. On 10 July, the Tel Fara area near al-Janina village came under attack from IS, which was repelled at the cost of three fallen fighters for al-Janina: Osama Muhammad Saliha, Qasi Saytan al-Sahnawi, and Iyad Majid al-Sahnawi.
Another notable area of outreach by Dir’ al-Watan has been the town of Salkhad, featuring at the end of July the whole array of main figures involved with Dir’ al-Watan: Sheikh Jerbo, Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, Nayef al-Aqil and Mamdouh Malak (another Syrian army figure). The meeting led to a newly formed local militia and ‘social faction’: al-Raghaba. In its founding statement, the group warned of the “dangers, conspiracies and sources of strife agitating to shake the security of our region and our proud mountain [Jabal al-Arab/al-Druze],” affirming that “what concerns us is waging war on those sources of strife and protecting the security of our land and public possessions that are for all its sons rather than the differences in their opinions, desires and political and thought stances, and [what concerns us is] protection of land and honour, for we have found today that this region is exposed to danger from anarchic, barbaric groups that have no religion and creed except the Shari’a of the jungle and slaughter, and have no political or reform aim but rather their aim is destruction, kidnapping and maltreatment.” Therefore, “our opinions and points of views agreed to form a faction from the youth of this town recruited for service, and this faction is armed with what types of weapons are available to it.” Though officially denying affiliation with any party, its alignment with Dir’ al-Watan is clear from the sequence of events that culminated in its founding.
Notice the man in Syrian Social Nationalist Party [SSNP] clothing besides Hanawi. The SSNP is another active pro-Assad faction in Suwayda whose affinity has been advertised with Dir’ al-Watan in social media, as per the graphic below. The SSNP in Suwayda has played an active role in fighting, most notably claiming two ‘martyrs‘ in June in fending off the rebel assault on Tha’ala airbase, and has claimed multiple other ‘martyrs’ from Suwayda province before, some of whom appear to be jointly claimed by the Syrian armed forces and the SSNP.
Maher Ghassan Hamoud, originally of Suwayda province. Note the SSNP logo on this poster for him. His ‘martyrdom‘ was announced on 28 July 2013 and presented by the “general administration for the army and armed forces.”
Thus it can be seen how closely intertwined Dir’ al-Watan is with already existing pro-Assad factions in Suwayda province, undoubtedly pushing back against the rise over the past year of Sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Bal’ous, about whom more below.
Translating as “The Men of Dignity,” Rijal al-Karama refers to the following of Bal’ous, who first emerged in early 2014 as a dissident sheikh within Suwayda province. Notable for his fiery rhetoric that seemed to imply overthrowing the regime, Bal’ous then went quiet for a time but has since re-emerged in public, commanding support both on the ground and on social media. However, it must be said that there has been a good deal of mischaracterization of what Bal’ous and his faction are actually pushing for. It is true that Bal’ous and his supporters have attracted the ire of recognisable pro-Assad Druze figures and social media, but there seems to be a conception that they are pushing for the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, either creating his own separatist Druze administration or striking a deal with ‘moderate’ rebels to take over.
In reality, Bal’ous’ earlier bellicose statements were just rhetoric (in this assessment, I am agreeing with my friend Tobias Lang, who focuses in-depth on Syrian and Middle Eastern minorities). In reality, no one can seriously advocate the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, because there does not exist a viable alternative to it, with provision of jobs, public administration, and so forth. Handing over administration to opposition factions in particular would be unthinkable, as there is no model of rebel administration in the south to go by and there is no guarantee that the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra could be kept out. Indeed, one should not overlook the impact of the forced conversion of the Druze in Idlib to Sunni Islam at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact still generally omitted in media and reports and about which many rebel factions and opposition supporters remain in denial.
What Bal’ous can push for though is his own political influence within the remaining regime rump state, focusing on greater autonomy for Suwayda province and more management over security placed in his hands, while reinforcing refusal for conscription in far-away fights that have no favourable outcome. This is quite different from overthrowing regime authority in Suwayda province. To begin with, as will be seen below, it should be noted Bal’ous and his supporters on social media still use the flag of the Syrian regime, and refer respectfully to the “Syrian Arab Army” and the “Syrian Arab Republic.”
The best sense of Bal’ous policy can be gathered from the relevant parts of this document, an apparent set of notes of a conversation between Bal’ous and the “Men of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous” page (the only claimed official page for him), beginning with the classic Druze narrative of strict self-defence. Interestingly, there is claimed support from Druze in “Palestine” [i.e. Israel], but cooperation with the Israeli state is rejected:
“Our arms are not directed internally but rather at anyone who attacks us and the lands of the mountain, and our disagreement with the corrupt one in the homeland is general, not with a particular side…The project of arming the mountain is among the principles we work upon and we have begun this work through what has come to us till now from our monotheist [Druze] brothers in Palestine, but we reject arming from Israel, this Zionist state that dispossessed our people in Palestine and is an enemy of the Arabs and this is what signifies it is our enemy. And we affirm to all that we have reached the time at which opposition and loyalty have come to an end, and we want to protect what remains of this homeland and encourage the hand of all who are trying to rebuild Syria.”
From the same page as the above graphic. This time here in support of the staunchly pro-Assad Druze village of Hadr in Jabal al-Sheikh that has been attacked multiple times recently by rebels: “Hadr of heroism and manliness: joy of victory of the men of Hadr and the Syrian Arab Army.”
In practice Rijal al-Karama could not manage Suwayda security wholly on its own, accordingly cooperation and an anti-fitna stance must be stressed even with pro-Assad factions: “The National Defence, Popular Committees, Ba’ath Brigades, Syrian Arab Army, Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql and Rijal al-Karama: hand in hand to defend the land of the mountain.” Note that the “Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql” refer to the likes of ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ militias set up by local mashayakh and supposed to be independent but coordinating with pro-Assad forces. The same emphasis on cooperation has been affirmed with regards to defending Tha’ala airbase.
None of the above in graphics and photos is to gloss over differences between Rijal al-Karama and the likes of Dir’ al-Watan. Though respect is paid to the Syrian flag and it is used as appropriate, on the field Rijal al-Karama certainly places much more emphasis than the pro-Assad factions on the use of the Druze flag. This is also apparent in the other Druze militias claiming affinity with Bal’ous and Rijal al-Karama.
One of the new Druze militias aligned with Rijal al-Karama and visited by Bal’ous: Bayraq Al Nu’aim (Banner of the Family of Nu’aim: cf. Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim), which renamed itself in July Bayraq al-Nidal, named after Syrian army brigadier general Nidal Mu’adha Nu’aim, who was killed in Khanaser in Aleppo province on 10 July 2013 while trying to dismantle IEDs.
Bayraq Al Nu’aim fighters: note their distinct armpatches. The militia has been involved in defence of eastern Suwayda localities like Qeisemah against potential and real IS threats and al-Tha’ala to the west against rebels.
Bayraq al-Haq, linked to Bayraq Al Nu’aim. Both groups also extended condolences to two army soldiers killed in Tellat al-Sheikh Hussein in Deraa.
Bayraq al-Basha, another Rijal al-Karama aligned militia, taking its name fromhistoric Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. Bal’ous has visited this militia in the village of Mughayyir. The militia also has influence in the southern Suwayda village of al-Ghariyyeh (near the border with Jordan).
The dynamics of Druze militias in Suwayda province have shifted considerably and grown in complexity over the past two years with the rise of Bal’ous in particular, but it would be a mistake to characterize these changes as a strict pro/anti regime dichotomy or as marking the verge of the downfall of the regime in the province as some excited observers and commentators wished to propose. Rather, the developments reflect the same trend as in other remaining parts of Syria held by the regime whereby actors beyond the regular armed forces exert influence as militias and attempt to stake out their claims in the political landscape of what is left of regime-held Syria. To an extent, the regime has already conceded to the likes of Bal’ous with the entrenchment strategy that focuses on defending vital areas. As of yet, the opposition still lacks a convincing alternative for the Druze of Suwayda, and so the framework of politics in Suwayda operates on the assumption of continued functioning of regime authority and administration.