Syria

Suwayda: Fire Under The Ashes

Contentious issues, including the thorny problem of conscription, create friction between the governorate’s Druze population and Bashar Assad’s regime.


Demonstrations broke out in mid-January in the Syrian city of Suwayda against the high cost of living. Photo Twitter

The predominantly Druze governorate of Suwayda in southern Syria has taken an atypical path since the popular uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime broke out in March 2011. In the beginning, Suwayda actively participated in the peaceful movement, but its inhabitants quickly took a neutral position when the uprising turned into a full-scale civil war. They refrained from joining either the Syrian regime or the armed opposition in the raging war, and over the years Suwayda has become a safe haven for thousands of displaced people from various Syrian governorates.

However, for some time, Suwayda has been facing chronic insecurity , due to subversive activities by Syrian security forces, who have been adding fuel to the fire to create permanent chaos in the region.

“There are plenty of gangs that specialize in kidnapping and theft. And they are known by the governorate’s inhabitants. These gangs have worked in the past with the regime’s security services, particularly the military security branch. They were mainly engaged in smuggling, and then shifted to kidnapping and banditry," said Assaad Abou Asli, a merchant in Suwayda . "The Syrian regime is using these bands to put pressure on the inhabitants who refuse to bow to demands by the authorities, mainly forced conscription in the army of Bashar Assad.”

Suwayda’s inhabitants are also suffering the full brunt of the country's economic crisis. “The high cost of living is terrifying these days. Prices are constantly rising, due in particular to the fall in the value of the Syrian pound against the dollar, and to the greed of unscrupulous traders who are exploiting this situation while the government is doing nothing to prevent them,” said Raafat Abou Ras, a city official.

The Syrian pound’s depreciation climaxed at a black market rate of more than 1,000 Syrian pounds per dollar while the country, which has been hit hard by Western sanctions against the regime, was also affected by Lebanon’s crisis. Faced with such a situation, the Suwayda inhabitants went to the streets in mid-January to denounce the dire economic conditions.

“We demonstrated to demand better living standards and an end to exploitation by traders. But, instead of finding solutions and responding to our grievances, the government accused us of being in the pay of external intelligence services, including Israel’s Mossad and US intelligence agencies," said Chadi Kiwan, an engineering student. "According to the regime, these demonstrations were manipulated by outside (forces) to destabilize Syria.”


Conscription

Among the major disputes between Suwayda’s Druze population and Assad’s regime is the thorny issue of conscription. The authorities have been trying hard to impose military service in order to address shortage of military personnel.

Thousands of young Druze refuse to serve in the army. They all live in the city where armed factions prevent the Syrian regime from taking them by force. "The Men of Dignity Movement", led by Sheikh Yahya el-Hajjar is the largest group and has contributed significantly to the expulsion of Islamic State (IS) fighters and the protection of the city. It has played an important role in preventing the regime from forcing the young Druze join Assad's army ranks and has also stopped arbitrary arrests by the security forces.

A youth, who was called up for military service, is not convinced of the need to join the war in Syria "because all the belligerent parties follow different agendas, especially the Syrian regime which is under the control of Iran and Russia." The youth, who refused to be identified, said "This is a war for the Assad regime to maintain power, and I’m not prepared to die for political interests that are not important to me.”

Karim, a young Druze, was taken to the army by force after he was arrested at a roadblock near Damascus. He fled and returned to Suwayda. Since then, he has refused to leave the city. He recalled how he was transferred to a brigade located in Deir ez-Zur in eastern Syria and how his superiors treated him. "The Alawite officers openly told us that we, Druze, are traitors because we refuse to fight for our country," he said. "Me and three other conscripts from Suwayda were maltreated. We ended up bribing officers to give us an authorization to take a few days of vacation. We then returned home, and we haven’t left the city since then.”

The relations between the Syrian government and the Suwayda region haven’t been good for years. On July 25, 2018, IS attacked the governorate, as a result of which more than 220 people, including many women and children, were killed. The regime’s army did not intervene to protect the Druze region, leaving it to its own fate. It withdrew without warning from the area that came under attack while local military factions defended the region and expelled the jihadists. The Army withdrawal facilitated the IS attack, thus causing more anger among the population against the regime. But there was no confrontation between the Druze and the regime forces.

Meanwhile, the armed factions of Suwayda’s Druze community have become increasingly powerful, extending their control over the region and preventing abuses by security services. According to Yasser,* the leader of one of these Druze factions, “a few clashes take place from time to time, and we are ready to engage in further fighting if the regime decides to attack us." He explained that when the protests began in Suwayda, "we were on the protesters’ side and sent a message to the regime that we are ready to respond if they are attacked.”


Leaving Suwayda

Historically, Suwayda has never benefited from the regime. Since late President Hafez Assad, Bashar's father, came to power in 1970, and until today, there have never been any real development plans for the region, neither from the public nor the private sector, with the exception of a few projects that could be counted on one hand. This has contributed to the migration of youths from the governorate to other countries, including the Gulf states and Venezuela. The outbreak of war, the unprecedented economic crisis and the galloping insecurity in the region have all contributed to an increase in the number of departures, particularly to Europe and Canada. Some leave in a legal way by acquiring visas from embassies, while others travel illegally by sea, but all those who left did so to escape poverty and unemployment.

“Since the start of the crisis, we have been trying to stay in our country, but because of the lack of employment opportunities in Suwayda, many young people have traveled to Europe, Canada or Turkey for a new life,” said Mazen el-Ismi, a young graduate from the region. “Unemployment here is very high, and the possibility of finding a job is rare. The majority of Suwayda families rely on money sent by their children working abroad. Personally, I can no longer bear the cost of living, and it is difficult for me to live in dignity with my wife in this city. Leaving Suwayda for a new life abroad is inevitable.”


*The first name has been changed for security reasons



The predominantly Druze governorate of Suwayda in southern Syria has taken an atypical path since the popular uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime broke out in March 2011. In the beginning, Suwayda actively participated in the peaceful movement, but its inhabitants quickly took a neutral position when the uprising turned into a full-scale civil war. They refrained from joining either the...

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