Pick­ing sides in south­ern Syria

Druze mi­nor­ity sect teams up with army to try to keep its land out of rebel hands.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick J. McDon­nell and Nabih Bu­los

SUWAYDA, Syria— The com­man­der of the be­sieged air base west of town had a mes­sage of de­fi­ance for the world.

“This will be the ter­ror­ists’ grave­yard,” vowed the Syr­ian army colonel at the front gate of the Tha­lah mil­i­tary air­port, well within mor­tar range of rebels the gov­ern­ment calls ter­ror­ists.

Here, about 70 miles south­east of Damascus, the Syr­ian mil­i­tary is mak­ing a stand against an op­po­si­tion on­slaught along the na­tion’s strate­gic south­ern flank.

Pro-gov­ern­ment forces have re­pelled sev­eral at­tacks— in­volv­ing tanks and heavy ar­tillery — on the sprawl­ing air in­stal­la­tion. The in­sur­gents are seek­ing to build on ad­vances in neigh­bor­ing Dara province, where gov­ern­ment forces this month were forced to re­treat from the large Brigade 52 base.

Af­ter a se­ries of re­cent set­backs in north­ern, eastern and south­ern Syria, pro­gov­ern­ment forces say they are de­ter­mined to pro­tect a vi­tal south­ern ap­proach to Damascus, seat of power of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

The over­stretched Syr­ian mil­i­tary, fight­ing bat­tles across mul­ti­ple front lines, is

re­ly­ing here on a key ally: mem­bers of the Druze sect, an off­shoot of Is­lam that has ad­her­ents in Syria, Le­banon and Is­rael. Thou­sands of men from the province are said to have signed up to pro­tect Suwayda, the Druze heart­land. Syria is be­lieved to be home to about half of the es­ti­mated 1.5 mil­lion Druze world wide.

“We, the sons of Suwayda, will be mar­tyred on our front doors be­fore we let them pass,” vowed Maj. Wil­liam Abu Fakher, a pro-gov­ern­ment mili­tia­man who stood guard with other Druze vol­un­teers, sev­eral in their 50s, at a check­point in the sun-scorched ter­rain.

Op­po­si­tion of­fi­cials have ac­cused Damascus of rous­ing sec­tar­ian fear amongthe Druze to bol­ster sup­port for the gov­ern­ment.

“The regime be­gan to in­cite sec­tar­ian di­vi­sions with the Druze,” said Bashar Zoubi, head of the Yar­mouk Army, a fac­tion of the South­ern Front, a West-backed rebel coali­tion with sup­ply lines to nearby Jor­dan.

The large mo­bi­liza­tion of Druze fight­ers helped stall the op­po­si­tion as­sault on the air base, Zoubi con­ceded in a tele­phone in­ter­view. He called the Yar­mouk Army forces mod­er­ate and non­sec­tar­ian.

But in­ter­views with Druze civil­ians and fight­ers here con­firm that many re­gard the rebel ad­vance as a threat to the Druze’s ex­is­tence. Sunni Is­lamist groups like Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s af­fil­i­ate in Syria, and Is­lamic State, an Al Qaeda off­shoot, view the Druze as heretics.

The rebels have ac­knowl­edged bat­tle­field co­or­di­na­tion with AlNusra mil­i­tants, who are widely viewed as among the most ef­fec­tive and best-armed fight­ers in Syria. Al Nusra has played a key role in at­tack­ing the air base, the army says. The South­ern Front de­nies that AlNusra has been in­volved.

This month, alarm spread among the Druze pop­u­la­tion when Al Nusra fight­ers killed at least 20 Druze in Qalb Lawzeh, a vil­lage in the north­west­ern province of Idlib.

Other re­ports have in­di­cated that the ex­trem­ists had forced Druze vil­lagers in the north to con­vert to the mil­i­tants’ ul­tra-fun­da­men­tal­ist ver­sion of Sunni Is­lam.

Dur­ing the pun­ish­ing, more than four-year con­flict, Druze re­li­gious lead­ers in Syria have gen­er­ally en­deav­ored pub­licly to steer a mid­dle path, voic­ing sup­port for peace­ful po­lit­i­cal re­form in Syria while re­ject­ing armed re­bel­lion. But like other Syr­ian mi­nor­ity groups, the Druze are gen­er­ally viewed as sup­port­ers of the gov­ern­ment of As­sad, a mem­ber of the mi­nor­ity Alaw­ite sect. The Syr­ian re­bel­lion arose from the na­tion’s Sunni ma­jor­ity. Mi­nori­ties and sec­u­lar Sun­nis are key to As­sad’s sup­port base.

The Druze’s per­ceived pro-gov­ern­ment stance has made the sect a tar­get of op­po­si­tion at­tacks in ar­eas like Jara­mana, a strate­gic sub­urb south­east of Damascus. Dozens have been killed in Jara­mana by op­po­si­tion car bombs and mor­tar strikes. Druze mili­ti­a­men from Jara­mana have helped drive rebels from out­ly­ing ar­eas.

But the threat to Suwayda and the sect’s an­ces­tral lands is on a much more pro­found scale for the Druze. It ap­pears to have gal­va­nized mem­bers across the re­gion in a call for col­lec­tive de­fense.

“Our only choice is to re­pel and refuse the en­try of any ter­ror­ist group into the area of Suwayda,” Sheik Yusef Jar­boo, a top Druze cleric in Syria, told Le­banese broad­caster AlMayadeen in an in­ter­view this month. “We shall re­sist with all the power we have.”

About 27,000 Druze fight­ers, the cleric said, were be­ing in­cor­po­rated “un­der the um­brella” of the Syr­ian mil­i­tary, which num­bers per­haps 200,000 plus tens of thou­sands of pro-gov­ern­ment mili­ti­a­men and al­lies from Le­banon and be­yond.

How­ever, across the bor­der in Le­banon, vet­eran Druze po­lit­i­cal leader Walid Jum­blatt blamed the poli­cies of As­sad for bring­ing Syria “into this chaos” in a com­ment on his of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count.

Some of the most stri­dent calls to de­fend the Druze of Syria have come from Is­rael, home to a sub­stan­tial Druze mi­nor­ity, in­clud­ing many in the oc­cu­pied Golan Heights.

“The Druze sect is fac­ing ex­is­ten­tial dan­ger,” Ha­mad Amar, a Druze mem­ber of the Is­raeli Knes­set, the par­lia­ment, warned pub­licly last week, adding that his sect “will not stand with its arms folded be­fore any cur­rent or fu­ture dan­ger fac­ing our broth­ers in Syria or else­where.”

In re­cent weeks, thou­sands of Druze liv­ing in Is­rael have taken part in ral­lies in sup­port of co­re­li­gion­ists in Suwayda and else where in Syria. Many also harshly crit­i­cized Is­rael’s med­i­cal treat­ment of wounded Syr­ian rebels, who, the Druze said, in­clude Al Nusra mil­i­tants.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials say the med­i­cal aid is a hu­man­i­tar­ian ges­ture of­fered to com­bat­ants and civil­ians alike, with­out re­gard to sect or po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion.

Here in Suwayda, home to about 70,000 peo­ple, mostly Druze, there is lit­tle out­ward sign of the war rag­ing else­where in Syria. The city has been largely in­su­lated. Streets are bustling and there is none of the vast dev­as­ta­tion seen in Homs, sub­ur­ban Damascus and Aleppo. The high­way south from the cap­i­tal re­mains open and un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol, though traf­fic is thin.

But the re­cent rebel at­tacks, which in­cluded a dozen or so mor­tar strikes on the city and its out­skirts, have brought the con­flict closer to home, as have the killings of the Druze in Idlib province.

“Peo­ple here were very an­gry about what hap­pened to our broth­ers in thenorth,” said film editor Obeida Rahroh, 23, re­fer­ring to the slay­ings of the vil­lagers in Idlib province. “We are all will­ing to fight for our home­land if we have to. Suwayda will not fall.”

Another res­i­dent, who asked for anonymity, said many here op­posed the gov­ern­ment of As­sad. “But that does not mean we want the Is­lamists to take over and for Syria to be­come like Libya or Iraq,” he added. “We want peace­ful change.”

About 10 miles west, at the en­trance to the Tha­lah mil­i­tary air base, Syr­ian sol­diers were dig­ging trenches and eye­ing rebel lines from be­hind sand­bagged ma­chine-em­place­ments on the edges of olive groves. Smoke arose in the di­rec­tion of the op­po­si­tion-held vil­lage of Umm Walad, a few miles away.

Airstrikes have been crit­i­cal in push­ing back the rebels, who at­tacked this month from the west and south of the city, us­ing tanks and mor­tars, the army said. The op­po­si­tion la­beled the at­tack “the bat­tle of the crush­ing of the tyrants.”

Some con­fi­dent rebels even planned to re­name the Tha­lah base, once taken, af­ter Faisal Qassem, a Suwayda na­tive and pug­na­cious talk-showhost on Al Jazeera satel­lite chan­nel known for his pro-op­po­si­tion stance.

But the in­sur­gents did not man­age to in­fil­trate the air base or get close enough in the open ter­rain to de­ploy sui­cide ve­hi­cles, said Syr­ian army 1st Lt. Talal Amer.

“They ex­pected the neigh­bor­ing vil­lages to join them, but the op­po­site hap­pened,” said Amer, a Druze from Suwayda.

At nearby Druze vil­lages the oth­er­day, res­i­dents were bring­ing food and tea to the Syria sol­diers.

“They think they can come here, then let them try,” said a Druze woman, 47, a mother of three with a white head scarf who gave her name as Umm Fadi and hosted Syr­ian sol­diers in her home. “We won’t run away.”

‘We, the sons of Suwayda, will be mar­tyred on our front doors be­fore we let them pass.’ — Maj. Wil­liam Abu Fakher, a pro-gov­ern­ment mili­tia­man

Paul Du­g­in­ski Los An­ge­les Times

Atef Safadi Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

DRUZE in the Golan Heights stand on an old Is­raeli tank to watch a bat­tle in­volv­ing Al Nusra Front fight­ers in a Druze vil­lage across the bor­der in Syria.

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