Sweida: The Static Revolution (3)

This is the third episode of a longer research, commissioned by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, about the Druze community in Sweida-Syria. The study, which will be published soon as a chapter in a book about Syrian minorities, covers the impact of the Syrian Revolution on the southern province from March 2011 until June 2013.

The rituals of mourning and burial in Sweida have for four decades been incorporated into daily life through the microphone.

The elderly in the city trace the use of the microphone back to the draining of an old Roman lake named “Al-Suriyah” and the building of the “Samarah” on top of it, as a place to accept condolences and hold funeral prayers according to Druze rituals.

Ever since, Sweida has awoken to an amplified voice repeating the mantra of someone’s death, pointing out the two most famous sites in the city: the shrine of Ayn al-Zaman where the body would lie and women gathered for mourning; and the Samara site where men gather to take part in the funeral prayers.

Every day in the morning, a car with the microphone roams the city streets, stopping at every intersection to repeat the mantra.

Over the past two years, however, a new ritual came into being: the late announcement of death. A car embellished with the pictures of the army’s martyrs, flags, and pictures of the president, would roam the streets of the city declaring the death of soldiers. Children in the neighborhoods would then repeat that the funeral procession was to start from the national hospital at eight o’clock in the morning.

There are no accurate numbers of how many soldiers and security officers from Sweida have died. The number could exceed 500, which is approximately 0.1 percent of the population 1. This number is significant in a small province like Sweida, and it is enough for the city to be in a perpetual state of mourning.

Most victims are from the drafted troops, they hold a high school degree and range in age between eighteen and twenty-five. They are mostly single men, who have been conscripted and remain in the army, even after compulsory service has come to an end. In certain cases, this additional service has extended to up to two years, and compensates for those who have deserted from service.

The first funerals of these soldiers quickly became loyalist demonstrations. Rice was thrown on the people walking in the procession, melancholic hymns were sung, and the sound of car horns, open fire, and eulogies from officers and Baath officials would echo throughout town 2. The heroic qualities of these martyrs were somewhat muddled by their pictures: young men carried their weapons with pride, their youth preventing the observer from thinking of death and heroism.

To this day, the army continues to announce the names of more of its martyrs. The public ceremonies, however, have almost completely disappeared. Funeral processions are smaller but more organized. Tens of motorcycles 3 carry armed men firing machine guns 4, disrupting traffic, spreading chaos and fear, and reminding the city of the armed conflict in the country.

After two and a half years, funerals have lost their mass popular appeal. They only include the family and friends of the deceased, a few officials, and curious observers. Anger on the faces betrays one central question: when will this war, which has claimed so many lives, come to an end. In the deep countryside, funeral processions continue to generate much anger and frustration over spilled blood.

On the other hand, Druze martyrs of the opposition are never delivered to their families or buried properly. They are usually buried in the location where they died, in Aleppo, Rastan, Dar‘a, or the Damascus countryside. Their parents are intimidated and their houses besieged. Rumors about them are spread around town, and proper funeral services for the deceased are not permitted. A notable example is that of the martyr Salah Sadek 5.

Druze martyrs among the opposition are not numerous, but they achieve for their communities a form of balance and representation in the Syrian revolution 6. Between the regime and the opposition, the compulsory nature of service with the regime compared to the voluntary nature of people’s support for the opposition, their deaths carry a certain “revolutionary” meaning, and they stand as a symbol of national unity 7.

Among them, there is the director Tamer Awwam who died in Aleppo while filming a documentary about the revolution in September 2012 and the activist Salah Sadek who also died in Aleppo in January 2013 while organizing a festival about children in war.

Members of the local community differ in the way they describe the dead. Political allegiances are evident according to the way a victim is described. Regime loyalists describe the dead soldiers as martyrs, whereas victims of the opposition are “dead animals”. Those who support the revolution see it the other way around.

In both cases, the dead of the sons of Sweida is perceived as an ‘external act’. It is a daily incident that takes place outside the borders of the province, since with the exception of the “mountain battle” in January 2013; the province was never part of the military confrontation, despite a deeply divided society.

The Druze community in the province appears today as a group of separate communities, neighboring each other without much interaction. Each develops its own tools to deal with the situation based on its interests and ethics.

The Army of National Defense

The army of national defense was a paramilitary force 8 that started to appear at the beginning of 2013, as an umbrella organization for all the regime shabiha and the popular committees (Lijan Sha‘biah). It was based on a contractual arrangement whereby the regime would financially compensate the volunteer who would still be considered a ‘civilian’.

A problem for the regime in the mountain was that young men were evading military service. Um Khaled is the mother of four, three sons and a daughter. Two of her sons were already working in the Gulf when the revolution erupted in the country, and she was forced to sell her jewelry to send her third son to Europe. She says: “We raised our kids with the hope of seeing them beside us as we get old, but now I prefer not to have them beside me. The youngest is supposed to report for his military service, and his older brothers have been called to serve with the reserve forces. I would rather not see them at all than have them die in this war”.

Um Khaled is just an example of thousands of Druze mothers who have found ways to send their children away.

Abu Issam explains: “I support the regime and swear by the life of Bashar Al-Assad, but my children are the most precious thing in my life. I do not want to see everything I worked for in my life fall apart, so I encouraged them to leave.”

Accurate numbers of those who are expected to report for military service or the reserve forces is not available, but the information that has been informally circulated reports that out of eight thousand people expected to serve, only a few hundreds have actually engaged in active duty 9.

The coordination committee of the province stated on 25January 2013, that “the security forces and the Baath party were conducting meetings with the people of Sweida to incite young men to be organized, armed, and trained to defend the regime as well as deeply divisive and sectarian plans”. The committee also reported that the Baath party meeting in the town of Tha’la has failed due to “the young men’s adamant rejection of the very principle of armament, and their refusal to join the so-called militias of national defense, or work under some of the retired and very corrupt officers of the Syrian army. The confronted members of the Baath delegation ferociously, and held them responsible for all the bloodshed in the country, and for the miserable living conditions. The elders had to intervene to protect the Baath delegation which had to leave empty handed”.

The incident was repeated in other towns, although the army of the national defense became a formidable force with time, one that oversaw many check points, and conducted regular patrols.

The most attractive aspect of the national defense army for residents of the mountain was that those serving could remain within the borders of the province, and were only required to serve limited and regular hours.

After a period of time, additional problems started to appear. The regime was in need of fighters from the province in the confrontations in Dar‘a, and on the highway between Sweida and Damascus. Several meetings 10 brought together representatives of the regime, local secular and religious leaders, but popular delegations although a satisfactory result was not reached. The regime put a lot of pressure on the religious establishment of the Druze community 11 in order for the latter to collaborate and encourage those who are supposed to report for duty. As a result, Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hujari said to those evading formal military service, “Continue whatever you started. You are not outlaws, [but] we cannot help you anymore”.

The regime founded the army of national defense as a solution for many problems, especially as a response to the economic crisis that the people were living through: the regime was now hiring fighters as employees; it armed them and trained them for regular salaries. One major problem remained: could these employees ever fight outside the borders of the province? Some already did; but a Druze fatwa appeared and stated that Druze civilians killed outside the mountain – fighting - would not have a proper religious burial. People started evoking this fatwa in order to avoid leaving the province 12.

The fatwa itself was shrouded in mystery. No one seemed to know for sure who issued it. Residents would vaguely mention that “several men of religion from the Druze community of Sweida prohibited membership in the national defense army, on the basis that this army will create “fitna” or friction with the people of Hauran and Dar‘a, and among the people of Sweida themselves, between the loyalists and the opposition” 13.

The Free Syrian Army and the Mountain Battle

The Free Syrian Army battalions with Druze members have emerged in neighboring Dar‘a or in the countryside of Damascus. In the mountain, the local community does not support the presence of these military groups.

Nevertheless, under the leadership of Durzian Lieutenant Khaldoun Zein El-Din 14, the alliance of the brigades of the “Valley and the Mountain” and Sultan Basha al-Atrash brigade, brought the military confrontation with the regime to the Mountain, and chose the agricultural area of “Dahr Al-Jabal” to launch its operations.

Khaldoun was an engineer before joining the army. He was shot in one of the battles in Dar‘a 15 and has since become an icon of the revolutionary young men of Sweida.

In Sweida, there is also a military council that falls under the supreme leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and is formed of several defected officers. The council, however, has no real presence in Sweida, but moves in the province of Dar‘a. The operation of “Dahr Al-Jabal” 16 started with prior knowledge of the council, which issued a statement: “we have fought today a battle of honor and liberation in Dahr al-Jabal, and defeated the forces of the Assad regime, under the leadership of the hero Khaldoun Zein Eddine. The Assad forces have paid a heavy price in men and equipment; their casualties are now in the Sweida hospital. This is the biggest blow to the regime in the province. We are present here, and we will reach the regime anywhere we want. Thank god, there are no losses or injuries among the ranks of the Free Syrian Army.”

This statement was in fact an exercise in wishful thinking. The facts on the ground revealed later that this military operation was a complete failure. Many agree that the entire operation was in fact a huge mistake; and that it was the result of the misguided encouragement that Lieutenant Khaldoun had received from the Dar‘a Brigades and their insistence on the need for military operations in Sweida.

The battle 17 started on 11 January 2013 and lasted about three days, at a time when snow covered large swathes of the mountain and hid its rough nature. Many conflicting reports surrounded the operation: who started firing? What was the objective? How did it all start?

The media center, a pro-opposition source, mentions that: “the security forces are spreading rumors that the confrontation in Dahr al-Jabal is aimed at stopping armed Bedouins from entering the Mountain. We confirm the completely false nature of these reports. The groups that are present there are under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, and have among them men from Sweida who have defected from the Assad army. We hope that the people of the area would not believe the rumors which aim to put pressure on the FSA groups”.

The regime closed down all the main roads in the mountain, and the snow took care of the secondary roads. The sounds of battle lasted for two days; the air force was employed and sounds of large explosions were heard throughout the region.

Rumors spread like fire: armed Bedouins are attacking the Druze. Armed terrorists from Dar‘a are turning around Sweida from the east, an attack on a military check point in Dahr al-Jabal 18; gangs of displaced people living in the mountain giving refuge to the armed men.

he regime was confidant of its ability to control the situation, despite the f many casualties at the national hospital.

The city was now listening to the sound of bombardment and the very close battles. Up until that point, such sounds would come from the West, from Dar‘a, where danger was always present. This time the situation reversed, as battles were taking place on the highest peaks of the mountain which had historically signaled safety for the Druze.

More support came from Dar‘a although the brigades were ambushed, however, by the regime, and lost many of its fighters 19. The operation ended with the withdrawal of the brigades of “Al-Sahilwa Al-Jabal”, having suffered significant losses. This coincided with conflicting reports about the fate of Khaldoun.

Many of his supporters claim that Khaldoun’s brother Fadel buried him in the snow, but when Fadel returned later to retrieve the corpse, he could not find it. This narrative turned Khaldoun into an icon among the supporters of the FSA. Until this day, there are rumors that he will reappear in Dar‘a. On the other hand, regime loyalists insist that there is photographic evidence of the body of Khaldoun “the traitor”.

Between the loyalists and the opposition, the Mountain battle was a hard one with much bloodshed.

Humanitarian Assistance

With time, Sweida emerged as a safe haven for those seeking refuge from bombardment and destruction. The city witnessed several waves of mass migration, the biggest of which took place around the end of 2012, when the number of displaced people reached around 30,000 people.

The province managed to absorb this number. Indeed, soon enough, there were networks of volunteers collecting donations and securing enough assistance for the needy.

The first large scale movements of displaced persons occurred at the end of 2011, as residents from Dar‘a and the suburbs of Damascus fled to Sweida.

A province-wide fund was established. According to activist Riad, this was a non-political initiative aimed to provide assistance in the name of the people of Sweida. It became imperative for Syrians, asserted Riad, to stand by each other. It was also important to show that Sweida is capable of providing humanitarian assistance. Ever since the blockade imposed on Dar‘a at the beginning of the revolution, channels of assistance from Sweida were never drained or cut off.

Before the establishment of the fund, assistance was prevalent but unorganized and based on private initiatives. This meant a weakness in documentation and coordination, and hence, a lack of overall strategy of distribution. Also, the name Sweida as a province where humanitarian assistance was present and generous was not showcased.

Although the Red Crescent and individual donors were very important, but Sweida residents were active in providing assistance included securing affordable housing, covering the rent for those unable to pay, securing a monthly ration of food items, and also providing medical services and assistance for children. This aid was featured in videos of Sweida providing aid to Homs and Dar‘a as a token of the province’s awareness of the national hardship and their desire and willingness to assist 20.

Abduction

The nightmare of abduction started with security forces kidnapping activists, and only making the fact that they were under arrest known an unspecified period later.

Then, abduction assumed a regional and sectarian character, particularly in places such as Dar‘a and Sweida where abductions had become more commonplace. This shift in events started when a bus of policemen from Sweida working in Dar‘a was captured in May 2012. This ignited an angry response in the province. Informal check points were set up between the two provinces and 46 people from Dar‘a were taken hostage. Tens of people gathered for several days outside the government house in Sweida demanding arms to fight with the regime in Dar‘a, and help release the captives. In parallel, communication between the traditional leaders of the two areas continued and managed to secure the release of the captives on both sides after three days 21.

The mutual abduction resulted in the direct intervention of Lebanese Druze politicians Walid Jumblat and Wi’am Wahhab, each on his own, to help end the crisis. Wahhab appeared in person and visited the Druze religious leaders personally 22.

The release of the captives turned into a festival that took place in Bosra, in the province of Dar‘a 23, with the presence of a delegation of notables from the Mountain. During the festival, reconciliation between the mountain and the valley was celebrated and the people chanted: “the Syrian people are one; Sweida we are with you with our blood, people of Ma’rouf we are with you with our blood!”

The celebration in Dar‘a was a true example of national unity. Nevertheless, the celebration did not put an end to abductions.

In December 2012, the Nusra Front carried out a military operation against the Mjaimar checkpoint near Sweida. On their way back, the Nusra armed members were intercepted by a group of the loyalist committees in Mjaimar. As a result of the clash, two al-Nusra members were killed and their bodies taken by the committees and handed over to the security forces 24. In its turn, al-Nusra kidnapped 17 people, most of whom were from al-Thu’la town near Dar’a, and refused to release them until the two bodies were returned to them.

The head of the FSA military council of Sweida denied giving Al-Shark Al-Awsat newspaper information that the Nusra Front was behind the abduction. He referenced the Nusra Front website, The White Light house (al-Manara al-Bayda’) which denied all responsibility for the deaths.

One of the most prominent hostages 25 was Jamal Izz el-Din, the head of the large al-Basha family.

The kidnappers uploaded a YouTube video on 27 December, 2012, that showed the captives 26, with their leader Jamal Izz el-Din beseeching the religious and secular leaders of the mountain to honor the demands of the group and work for the release of prisoners from Dar‘a, especially women. The captives appeared in the video sitting on the floor of a room, with a black banner inscribed with al-Nusra Front.

Then the video showed a man with his face covered reading verses from the Qur’an and threatening the Druze in the name of Nusra and promising death.

This crisis had still not been resolved. The crisis continues as tit-for-tat abductions and criminal demands for ransom continue to divide the social fabric of the region.

On 23 January 2013, Sweida woke to a horrendous crime. The body of a boy, named Nasser Jammoul, was found in a distant location near the cemeteries of the city. The fifteen-year-old teenager had been abducted a month earlier on the road between Kanawat and the city center. The security forces were unable to find his abductors, who asked the family of Nasser for an astronomical ransom.  The boy died of hunger and thirst.

The incident caused considerable emotional grief in the city of Sweida 27. Thousands gathered in several public squares, dressed in black. Nasser was mourned and buried as a martyr 28. Several demonstrations were organized from the city’s school to denounce the heinous crime. On the day of the funeral, the city streets were flooded with students and women. Sweida was in solidarity with itself on that day 29. The funeral procession turned into a great demonstration, led by students 30.