BEIRUT: Tension has gripped the southern Syria Druze-majority town of Swaida after two recent confrontations between residents and the local branch of Military Intelligence, which led to the dismissal of its controversial head.
The chain of events began earlier this month, in front of the provincial governor’s building in downtown Swaida, a city of some 100,000 people.
On April 4, Baath Party and intelligence officials reportedly paid an impoverished, middle-aged woman wearing traditional Druze “religious” clothing to dance and wave a photograph of President Bashar Assad, to spice up the atmosphere at an election rally tent.
When a few dozen leading mashayekh, or religious figures, were informed of the spectacle they rushed to the site and wrecked the tent and loudspeakers, assaulted those present and spirited the woman away.
The mashayekh and their supporters then met to discuss a course of action to protest a number of regime policies that they object to, and decided to demand the ouster of Col. Wafiq Nasser, the head of the Military Intelligence branch for Swaida and neighboring Deraa province.
On April 9, the authorities detained one of the mashayekh, Lawrence Salam, and his brother, which led to another explosion of anger, as dozens of midlevel mashayekh and local supporters gathered at the Ain al-Zaman site in Swaida, a traditional meeting-place of religious elders.
They blocked roads, fired weapons in the air and chanted their demand to see Nasser dismissed, alerting the authorities that they would either raze the Military Intelligence building to the ground or see the two detainees released – which they quickly were.
One day after the explosion of anger in the streets, the Druze community’s triumvirate of mashayekh al-aql, or senior religious figures, issued a statement in which they warned that “hidden hands have been seeking to sow strife” between residents of Swaida and the security authorities.
The statement said the three senior figures banned the practice of “carrying arms while wearing religious clothing,” and also instructed members of the community to not gather in public while armed, a clear response to events of the day before.
The statement failed to reduce the tension, however, and one day later, on April 11, dozens of people, among them a number of mashayekh, gathered at the home of Sheikh Wahid Balous in the village of Mazraa.
After the meeting, social media and pro-opposition outlets circulated the purported statement issued following the gathering, which contained several ultimatums.
The meeting’s participants said they wanted Nasser ousted, while adding that Lebanese Druze politician Wiam Wahhab, a staunch regime supporter of Assad, was “persona non grata” because he was planning to visit the province.
The regime decided to calm the situation by relieving Nasser of his duties and transferring him, naming an officer from the Taha family as his replacement, according to local anti-regime activists.
Has there been a “mutiny” against the authorities by the faction of midlevel mashayekh and their many civilian supporters?
According to an observer from the province, the statements issued after both meetings – that of the senior mashayekh and their opponents – contained suspicious elements.
He said the statement of the senior mashayekh resembled an “intelligence directive” more than the traditional language of Druze religious elders, who focus on behavior and morality rather than issuing detailed political stances.
Meanwhile, the opposition faction that met in Mazraa reportedly said they categorically rejected the authority of the senior mashayekh – but this bombshell repudiation was in doubt as well, the activist said, expecting clarifications to be issued in the coming days.
“Some people are saying that an explosion has occurred – the ingredients are there, but the explosion hasn’t taken place yet,” the observer said.
An anti-regime activist, also from the province, told The Daily Star that he agreed it was too early to say whether Swaida – quiet for the overwhelming majority of the conflict and hosting thousands of non-Druze refugees – would be pushed into open confrontation with the regime.
In addition to removing Nasser, the regime sent Brig. Gen. Issam Zahreddine, the most famous Druze officer in the military, to mediate a solution.
But Zahreddine’s efforts have yet to succeed, both the observer and the activist said.
The Druze community is often labeled as loyalist, but this is misleading. More than 95 percent of its young men eligible for military service are believed to avoid reporting for duty every year, but they are largely left alone by the authorities.
For the most part, the Druze who are armed themselves have done so with the objective of defending their home province from attacks by armed groups, and not taking an offensive stance or persecuting non-Druze.
A small number of Swaida natives have joined the various paramilitary groups organized by the regime, but they are officially “excommunicated” by community elders if they fight outside Swaida, and battles there are an extreme rarity.
The community’s religious figures have overwhelmingly adhered to a long-standing injunction, ordered by the top three mashayekh, against funeral prayers being performed for Druze paramilitaries killed while serving outside the province.
The observer said that a key demand of the protestors was that Military Intelligence operatives have no presence in the western part of the province bordering Deraa – they blame the authorities for fomenting tension between the Druze of Swaida and their overwhelmingly Sunni neighbors in Deraa, the birthplace of Syria’s uprising.
Residents of the province have voiced the view on social media forums that the security branch’s behavior meant that “the red lines have been crossed.”
Swaida has experienced a number of such upticks in tension and confrontations throughout the uprising, meaning that it remains to be seen whether the current bout will translate into anything wider.
“We have to watch for whether the mashayekh seek to take over control of the situation on the ground, in the city, from the regime,” the activist said. “This will indicate that things have truly changed.”
As for the small, pro-rebellion current in Swaida, the observer said that its members had proven their “immaturity” by not siding forcefully with the mashayekh and others who have led the minirevolt.
“They see the [five-colored] Druze flag being held aloft in the street, and they have a phobia about such religious aspects entering a protest movement,” the observer added.
“They don’t know how to read the situation. That flag was the symbol of the 1925 Great Revolt against French occupation – but that doesn’t mean that back then, it was a religious insurrection.”