Middle East

Swaida tries to remain neutral as rockets hit city

People attend the pro-Assad rally in Swaida, Syria. (Uygar Akta? Twitter)

BEIRUT: Mortar bombs and rocket fire have begun to target the Druze-majority city of Swaida in southern Syria, long quiet for most of the uprising, after tension between residents and intelligence bodies boiled over earlier this month.

A mortar bomb exploded Friday in the southern part of Swaida, wounding an unknown number of people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Three days earlier, a Grad rocket struck the western edge of the city, near a military facility, but no casualties were reported.

Shortly before the incidents, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, reportedly issued a statement in which it vowed to target military and paramilitary targets in Swaida to “avenge” the deaths of residents of next-door Deraa province.

But the identity of those firing the rockets and mortars, as well as the recent public statements that have accompanied a sudden uptick in tension, remains murky.

Residents have long been angry over the behavior of the Military Intelligence department for Swaida and Deraa, Col. Wafiq Nasser.

The tension boiled over earlier this month into street protests, as armed locals and mashayekh, or religious figures, took to the streets to demand Nasser’s ouster.

Anti-regime activists indicated that Nasser was indeed replaced, although they are now saying that the news was circulated by the regime and its supporters, to placate locals and defuse the tension.

Faisal al-Kassem, the famous Al-Jazeera talk show host and a native of Swaida, stated that the recent reports of Nasser’s ouster were completely false.

An anti-regime activist told The Daily Star that it remained unclear whether Nasser had in fact been transferred. “The news certainly spread quickly that Nasser was ‘out,’ but we haven’t been able to confirm it 100 percent,” he said.

Anti-regime circles also cast doubt on the statement by the Nusra Front, as being of doubtful authenticity in comparison to earlier statements by the group.

When the Druze community’s three senior religious figures, or mashayekh al-aql, issued a statement that failed to appease local anger over the behavior of Nasser and the security authorities, more than 100 people gathered at the home of a mid-level religious figure in the village of Mazraa.

Social media forums circulated a statement that was supposedly issued by the angry participants, but the host of the meeting this week issued his own clarification – he denied that the participants of the meeting had declared their independence from the three senior figures, as some pro-opposition outlets had reported.

The statement issued by Sheikh Abu Wahid Belous said no one had the intention of rejecting the authority of the three senior mashayekh.

But he added that their implicit call for turning in weapons to the authorities was invalid.

“The [earlier] statement by the mashayekh about [turning in] civilian arms does not prevent us from keeping our weapons in order to defend our land and our honor, as the mashayekh al-aql have informed us in private conversations,” Belous said, referring to the senior three figures.

The statement by Belous addressed a series of topics, and stressed that he spoke for a group of people who were “neither supporters [of the regime] nor opponents.”

When tension in Swaida saw a dramatic rise this month, a Deraa-based commander of the opposition Free Syrian Army, Ahmad Naameh, issued his own statement of solidarity with the Druze anti-regime protestors.

Belous responded to this, indicating that Naameh was in no position to trumpet good relations between Swaida and Deraa.

The sheikh said the call for unity was “surprising,” since Naameh was responsible for an area in which kidnappings of Druze civilians had taken place during the uprising.

Belous repeated a call for the ouster of security chief Nasser, and asked why the authorities lacked a presence in the western part of Swaida province.

“When someone from the [Druze] sect is killed or kidnapped, no one asks with any seriousness, but if it is someone else, the state makes huge efforts,” he complained.

Meanwhile, anti-regime activists had a field day this week when a march in support of President Bashar Assad’s re-election was staged in Swaida – a photograph of the few dozen people who took part was circulated on social media, a sign of how Swaida has been trying – with difficulty – to remain truly “neither supporters nor opponents.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 19, 2014, on page 10.




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