Syria’s Druze Grapple With Jabhat al-Nusra

Article Summary
Regardless of their stance on the war currently raging throughout Syria, Druze from Daraa have had to deal with attacks and abductions by the polarizing Jabhat al-Nusra, writes Salem Al-Dimashki.

After a year and a half, the city of Suwayda has established a military council headed, like other armed military factions, by dissident Col. Marwan al-Hamad, who chose Daraa to be a field of military operations against the regime’s army.

The opposition initially did not take this move seriously, considering it to be mere propaganda. Suwayda was not seen as a socially welcoming environment to the revolution. Both supporters and opponents of the regime had rejected any military operations, as a result of many displaced people who were cared for by both sides in the city.

At the same time, a group of enthusiastic young men, known as the “revolution amateurs” by Suwayda intellectuals, were eager to conduct military operations against the pillars of the regime in the province in coordination with the military council. Most notable among these was Lt. Khaldoun Zein al-Din, commander of As-Sahel wa Jabal battalion, who was killed in battle a few weeks ago. The group aimed to raise sufficient funds to conduct an operation that would live up to their expectations. Their endeavor persisted until they succeeded in striking at the checkpoints separating Daraa and Suwayda, the airport of Thaala and security vehicles.

Jabhat al-Nusra and Unexpected Interference

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Daraa was and continues to be the most socially welcoming environment to civilian and military activity. It has received anti-regime armed factions — including Suwayda’s revolutionary military — unlike Suwayda, whose residents condemn any sort of military activities.

Jabhat al-Nusra launched its military activities in Aleppo, before moving to the Damascus Countryside and unexpectedly appearing among the factions in Daraa, all while relying on secrecy and clandestine military performance. Jabhat al-Nusra has amassed a number of militants from the province and has conducted operations against the regime’s forces that were “highly advanced” considering the expertise of its fighters and painstaking training, in addition to a number of experienced militants who had previously fought in Iraq and Libya. Regardless of its impressive performance, Jabhat al-Nusra was not warmly welcomed within the armed factions of Daraa, which are dealing with some disparity between their militants and the leadership of the military council. They have been unable to address Jabhat al-Nusra or its activities.

The Mujaymir Barrier is located in one of Suwayda’s towns situated on the border with Daraa. It was equipped with an arsenal of heavy and light weapons and used to bombard revolutionary towns in Daraa, such as Basra al-Sham, which faced constant shelling and the destruction of houses. At the same time, the army’s bombs also made their way to the Jordanian border. The Free Syrian Army has launched many attacks on this barrier, one of which involved the military council of Suwayda. The attacks, however, were not efficient enough to deter the bombardment.

Because of its military expertise, Jabhat al-Nusra decided to attack the checkpoint, but its operation failed. It suffered many casualties and did not achieve the desired results.

Several regime “shabihas” participated in defense operations alongside Assad’s forces. The number of casualties in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra increased and many losses were incurred. In response to its defeat, Jabhat al-Nusra kidnapped many civilians from al-Thaala village near Umm Walad in Daraa, despite the fact that the inhabitants of this village played an important role in providing aid and relief to Daraa towns and constituted a pathway for many displaced families.

Jabhat al-Nusra showed the kidnapped individuals on tape. The inhabitants of Suwayda, from both the opposition and pro-government sides, saw these as hateful provocations, laden with insults. Jabhat al-Nusra's leader demanded on the tape that the detainees be released and that they hand down the bodies of the deceased. He also asked for the release of women from the regime’s prisons, in addition to many other demands. As a response, the inhabitants of a Druze village kidnapped several people from Daraa and detained them until Jabhat al-Nusra released the hostages.

Reason in the face of extremism

The inhabitants of the district have been unable to resolve the issue of women, the dead and detainees, since Syrian security authorities oversee all military and security operations. These authorities didn't listen to prominent figures from the Druze mountains who asked for the release of detainees or return of bodies.

One of the sheikhs from the Druze sect, Abu Wael Hamoud al-Hinawi, handled the release of all Daraa hostages in Suwayda. He obliged everyone to prevent such an act from happening again so that matters can return to normal. The sheikh held direct negotiations with Jabhat al-Nusra — a step that the sheikhs considered important to avoid strife and to stop bloody developments. The aim is to maintain good relations and civil peace.

But the step was not accepted by Jabhat al-Nusra’s members, who asked the sheikh, according to “leaks from the held talks,” to provide them with public coverage and allow them to strike the governmental institutions and facilities in the district. The sheikh refused to cooperate, and he reiterated that these facilities serve civilians and are not targets. He also spoke during the meeting about the importance of dismissing any military operation in the district, since it will not benefit any side. It will only further complicate things, especially with the influx of thousands of displaced people from several districts. On the other hand, the military council of Suwayda, which has tight relations with Jabhat al-Nusra, did not interfere to settle the matter. Instead, it published news about joint military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra, including the 12th brigade and 175th regiment raid of a tank from the 5th division in Izraa, Daraa. This operation astonished many opposition members in the city and was condemned by some who saw it as an act of betrayal of kidnapped civilians, and who considered the military council to be little more than a Facebook page.  

The waiting game

Despite the efforts exerted by prominent figures in the district and the high-ranking sheikh of the Druze sect on one side, and intellectuals from Daraa, on the other, those kidnapped from the city remain under Jabhat al-Nusra’s grip. Until this moment, Jabhat al-Nusra still has not revealed anything about their condition. What has complicated things even further is the stubbornness of Jabhat al-Nusra’s leaders and their refusal to release the victims, despite the sheikh’s promise to return the bodies of the dead and the detainees they asked for. Many inhabitants consider the situation dangerous for civil peace between the two neighboring districts.

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Found in: violence, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syria crisis, sectarianism, jabhat al-nusra, druze
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