Exclusive - Sweida: Blood-Soaked Test of Self-Rule

Exclusive - Sweida: Blood-Soaked Test of Self-Rule

Saturday, 4 August, 2018 - 09:30
A truck damaged in a suicide attack in the southern city of Sweida. Reuters
Beirut - Nazeer Rida
The predominantly Druze province of Sweida has stayed largely on the sidelines of Syria’s war, allowing community leaders to exercise some form of “self-rule,” which spared it the violence that has hit Syria since 2011.

Yet, Sweida’s neutrality has recently returned to the limelight after the Syrian regime sought to reestablish its control over the province by force, a move rejected by the community.

The regime’s move came after it regained control of much of southwestern Syria through settlements with the opposition under Russian sponsorship.

A Russian military delegation met last week with Druze clergymen in Sweida to discuss the future’s province after the settlement deal stipulated the enrollment of Syrians wanted for military service in the regime’s fifth legion, which is run by Russian forces in Syria.

The delegation was quoted as saying that it has been tasked with making a proposal to Sweida leaders to “settle the situation” of local militias and those who have evaded military conscription.

Syrian political researcher Dr. Samir Altaqi told Asharq Al-Awsat that although at some stage some factions in Sweida backed the regime and others supported the opposition, the province “had and still has its own special identity, stopping the Syrian regime from returning to it like in the pre-crisis phase.”

“The main issue today is that the Syrian regime can’t enter (Sweida) through its gunmen (shabiha), security tools and Iranian militias, or through the fifth legion because of the resident’s reservations,” he said.

“The regime is seeking to destroy the city’s will,” said Altaqi, stressing that only Russia can find a compromise solution.

“The regime is coming up with crippling conditions because it believes that it is the sole decision-maker on the province’s fate,” he added.

When the Syrian war erupted in 2011, community leaders in Sweida took a firm position against participating in the war, resisting enrolling their sons in the army to avoid revenge attacks.

After seven years, this resulted in more than 50,000 young men in the province wanted for military conscription, Syrian opposition activist Alia Mansour said.

However, according to Altaqi, Sweida residents claim that for the past years they protected their city and province and kept themselves out of the war at a time when the regime failed to protect them.

“That’s why they refuse to join the military and security system and be enrolled in the regime’s army,” the researcher told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He said Russia should close the subject, but the regime of Bashar Assad insists on having them enrolled.

As the issue has been largely debated, ISIS militants carried out last month a series of coordinated attacks on the usually peaceful city and surrounding countryside.

They launched their offensive with a spate of suicide bombing attacks in the city. They later swarmed several villages in the province's northeast, and in some cases, shot residents as they slept.

In the worst violence to hit the area since the country's conflict began, the militants killed and injured scores of people in the coordinated attacks.

Regime forces along with local gunmen confronted the attackers, leaving many militants dead.

The terrorist attack was a clear sign that ISIS, although it was expelled from large areas of Syria and neighboring Iraq, has been able to infiltrate to some pockets in the Syrian desert and establish hideouts to carry out bloody operations.

Sweida websites have posted images that purported to show ISIS militants killed in the assault with identification cards showing they were from Yarmouk camp. 

They alleged that some of the militants who took part in the attack had been given safe passage out of the refugee camp in the southern outskirts of Damascus.

The last ISIS militants in Yarmouk were bused out with their relatives in May to desert territory still held by the group.

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