Sweida: The Static Revolution (1)

This is the first episode of a longer research, commissioned by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, about the Druze community in Sweida-Syria. The study, which will be published soon as a chapter in a book about Syrian minorities, covers the impact of the Syrian Revolution on the southern province from March 2011 until June 2013.

Sweida province is located in the south of Syria, about 180 km south of the capital Damascus. It consists of volcanic mountains, which form its unique nature surrounded by the plains and deserts. Its people like to describe it as oasis, and this hides an implement about their culture deference with their neighbors. The population of Sweida is almost from the Druze sect, and they count about 380,000 people, with small minorities from Christians and Sunnis. Most of Sweida's Sunnis are Bedouins. Druze used to add their religion to Islam, but actually they have a clear distinction from Islam. It is related to their historical religion formation in the 11th century as a minority that depends on its own explanation of the Quran, to survive, and to protect its supporter.

The Druze managed during their long history to hide their beliefs, and tried, as possible as they can, to avoid the internal conflicts between Islamic components. They tend to fight the foreign occupations rather than involving in local conflicts. They've achieved their legitimacy in the complex east world, according to their role in protecting the Arabic lands.

During the Syrian uprising the Druze had found themselves between gun shooting, and every small group inside this closed sect has developed different responses according to its economic position and understanding. Those different responses are not exclusive to the secular circles inside Druze community, but it affects the religious circles too.

With the eruption of the Syrian uprising on 15 March 2011, Sweida society witnessed a split between regime loyalists and revolutionary enthusiasts. The division appeared first as a spontaneous and emotional one, but gradually acquired a more political nature, evolving into what became a complete societal rift. The biggest bloc today is the undecided bloc, with staunch loyalists and revolutionaries standing respectively on its right and left. Neither of these two peripheral groups has succeeded in gaining the upper hand.

In opposite to the situation in Syria, the starting of the events in Sweida was ignited by the regime loyalists, because in the first few days of the revolution, Sweida was the stage of a blatant show of the regime supporters force; hundreds of unlicensed motorcycles and tens of tinted cars roamed the city for days, with posters of President Assad and the slogan “Minhibak” [منحبّك we love you] hanging from the windows. Loud songs pledging eternal allegiance to President Assad and brutal punishment for dissidents rang from specially installed speakers. This euphoria lasted for days, and created considerable turbulence in an otherwise calm city. Members of the Baath party from throughout the province were brought in buses and vans to demonstrate their loyalty and free meals were distributed. The local police withdrew from the city and traffic lights were switched off. Motorcycles would perform absurd acrobatics in the empty streets, while the city center closed down completely.

The local society was terrified. The protest in nearby Dar‘a, was quickly followed by a brutal response by the regime, and the regime supporter's power show in Sweida intimidated residents and forced them to stay for days in their homes. An engineer named Hatem, who had studied in the former Soviet Union, recalls speaking in Russian with a friend in the supermarket for fear of being overheard. He describes: “I did not know what was happening, but the celebration of the unfolding brutality in Dar‘a was disgusting; they were shooting in the air like joyous lunatics".

The motorcycle show was the first step to organizing regime loyalists, those known first as “Minhibakjis” [from the verb “Minhibak”, we love you], and later as “Shabiha” [a local word for pro-regime paramilitaries and thugs]. Loyalty to the regime was bolstered as a result of a quick visit by President Assad and his family to several villages in the eastern parts of the province on 12 March 2011, days before the eruption of the revolution. These villages had been hit the hardest by the drought, and were known for being the poorest in the area. The spontaneous popular reception that Assad enjoyed in the villages and the Facebook posts presented him and his family being carried on the shoulders, and created an image of the province as a staunch base of support for the regime. Assad is rumored to have told the villagers that his father, on his death bed, had asked him to be particularly kind to the people of Sweida as they would stand by him in difficult times. Many similar rumors about the visit spread among the normal people, but according to Hatem, “everything was carefully orchestrated to convey the message that the regime supports the [religious and ethnic] minorities, at a time when the Tunisia and Egyptian revolutions had already taken the Arab World by storm”.

On the other side, the opposition was in disarray. Syrian society had been denied access to politics for half a century and people did not dare to think about public issues and discuss it publically. Nevertheless, the 29thanniversary of the death of Sultan Basha al-Atrash (26 March), the mountain leader and the anti-colonial hero, was an opportunity for dissidents to publicly congregate. A YouTube video that appeared shortly afterwards showed tens of demonstrators shouting: “God, Syria, and Freedom”, in front of the commemorative statue of the 1925 Great Syrian Revolt, which also houses the remains of al-Atrash.

The demonstration took place near the house of al-Atrash, a large blue-stone landmark that had been shelled on several occasions during the Ottoman and French times. The history of the house endowed the demonstration with great symbolism, and connected it to a key moment in the emergence and consolidation of Syrian national identity among the Druze community, during the inter-war period1915-1946.

On the other side, the Ba’th local committee in the town of al-Karya "the town of al-Atrash" gathered high school students and members of the party in the town central square. They carried pictures of the Syrian President, cheering for Assad, while storming a gathering of the opposition, and forcing the group to disband.

The Syrian regime had since 1987 outlawed any commemoration of Sultan al-Atrash’s death and this ban was associated at the time with repressive measures against activists, and the blocking of the main road between Sweida and al-Karya. These measures came as a result of popular demonstrations in al-Karya on the 26th of March every year between 1982 and 1986which had represented a challenge to the authority of the Ba’th ruling party at a time when the regime was in a crisis which is well known as the 1980ies’ crisis in politics and security sectors, and economic hardships were acutely felt.

Division over Dar‘a

Divisions in the local society started to become more and more apparent. Assad loyalists organized gatherings and processions that included state employees and students; while opposition voices began to surface.

On 30 March 2011, during a television program recorded live and aired on BBC Arabic, the artist and dissent Tarek Abdul Hay from Sweida explained: “the advisor to the president, Buthaina Shaaban claimed on the day after Al-Omari Mosque was stormed that ‘external hands’ were instigating friction and sectarian tension in Dar‘a, but this was hardly persuasive. The next day, Syrian citizens there are being shot again, so who is instigating friction? What is even more appalling is that we saw celebrations in certain Syrian cities pledging allegiance for the president, while the funerals of the Dar’a victims were still taking place! Are these the true qualities of Syrians?”. Tarek words came after the regime forces had occupied Al-Omari Mosque in Dar‘a, and he represents an opposite voice to the regime policy from Sweida.

The conspiracy that the regime evoked in the first days of the revolution could acquire a regional and sectarian dimension that Sweida activists were particularly aware of. They realized the sensitivity of the situation, and the ability of the regime to capitalize on and manipulate the smallest details of everyday life. Dar‘a with a Sunni majority is easily differentiated from the Druze-dominated Sweida. Interests overlap across the two regions, and sometimes clash, particularly concerning agricultural land, real estate and water access. Any clash could easily acquire a sectarian character.

Concern over the violence that the regime exhibited in Dar’a and its conspiratorial language provoked activists in Sweida. The demonstrations and protests primarily included signs of solidarity with Dar‘a.

Manal, a fifty-year-old agricultural engineer describes: “There are those who want to incite hatred between us and the people of Dar‘a, in order to divert the attention of the Syrian revolution and make it appear as a sectarian struggle. In Dar‘a, there are children who were tortured. Their parents rose up in their defense. What is so strange about this? Where does the conspiracy lie? This is an uprising for dignity and human rights. It is an uprising that represents the anger of our people in Dar‘a over their compromised dignity".

On the other side of the divide, there are those who perceive the people of Hauran 1 as inferior, as “onion sellers”. Agricultural work has led the people of Dar‘a to seek markets for their produce outside their city; Sweida became known for mobile trucks loaded with vegetables from Dar‘a, which announce their products by speakers attached to the cars, selling onion, garlic, tomatoes and cucumber.

Hussein, a seventy-four-year-old military nurse recalls: “The armed gangs are responsible for the murder of Syrian soldiers. If it were up to me, I would level Dar‘a to the ground, and turn it into an onion farm”. Such words reflect racial tensions that have increased due to the regime’s media machine, and the narrative of a Jihadist plot against the minorities, and the very principle of co-existence. Hussein’s words reproduce a rumor that Maher Al-Assad, the president’s brother, has threatened to level the city of Dar‘a, and plant potatoes in its place.

Saado is a 65-year-old retired state employee, and a father of five. He spent the most of his carrier time at Dar‘a. He explains: “I do not mean to criticize, but I have served for fifteen years in Dar‘a. The problem is the division that the regime created between us. Do you know that Dar‘a was a formidable source of cadres for the Ba‘th party and that it is the only Sunni area which was not affected by the Muslim Brotherhood crisis in 1979-1982? Dar’a is self-sufficient. The prime minister for more than 15 years was from there; they had high ranking security officials in the army, the party, and the state bureaucracy. The people of Hauran are wealthy due to agriculture and trade with the Gulf. They have a highway that connects them to Damascus and Amman, whereas until the last few years the people of Sweida continued to [suffer traffic fatalities] on the local road that connected them to Damascus. They also had hundreds of wells, when no one in Sweida was allowed to dig one!”

The words of Saado betray the usually unspoken element in the relationship between Dar‘a and Sweida. The question of water wells was for many years the most sensitive. In Sweida, fines and imprisonment were customarily imposed on well digging while Dar‘a agriculture thrived due to well-based irrigation system. The underground water in Hauran is usually found at a low depth, but it originally comes from rain water that falls over the mountains of Sweida, then it returns and stores at pockets of rock underneath the geographic expansion of Hauran

Sweida has looked towards its Western neighbor with envy. Political repression was one and the same, but the strong links that the people of Dar‘a enjoyed to state bureaucracy made it easier for them to acquire services that were essential for the growth of agriculture. Thus, while Sweida depended on the rainfall, and thus remained limited in its agricultural product to fruits and olive, while the plains of Dar‘a thrived with many varieties of vegetables.

Muhammad, a furniture trader observes Sweida has suffered under the Baath, but [the region] is now pro-regime; while Dar‘a has historically stood by the regime, it is now against it. It is a reversed pictur

In the mid of March 2011, a YouTube video appeared of a Salafi Sheikh from Dar’a named Abdul-Salam Al-Khalili, cursing the Druze confession. From a mosque in the town of al-Hirak, al-Khalili accused the Druze of prevarication; he had insulted their women, and defiled the memory of Sultan al-Atrash by claiming that he had ‘hijacked’ the Great Syrian revolt 1925-1927.

In a response to al-Khalili, writer Hamzah Rastanawi describes in an article he published on the website: al-Hiwar al-Mutamaddin: “I do not believe that what al-Khalili said is exceptional. In closed societies, one would expect the existence of people whom supporting him, one would expect speeches and dialogues which reflect this narrow understanding of Islam or any religion to be common, in Hauran or in other areas.”

Despite geographic proximity, there is very little knowledge in Dar‘a and Sweida of each other. The narrow winding roads that cut across many villages rather than linking the two cities directly could be seen as a reflection of this division. The economic ties between the two areas for instance never molded them into the same market, but their separate ties with Damascus remain stronger than their ties with one another. Such a lack of knowledge and communication has allowed mutual fears to grow and fester.

The Al-Khalili video began circulating among the residents of Sweida, and contributed significantly to an increasingly hostile attitude among the Druze community of the Syrian revolution. Al-Khalili touched three sensitive topics: He declared the Druze to be apostates, he insulted their honor and their women, and he calumniated their history.

The video spread rapidly among the Druze and the audio visual representation became tangible proof to revive fears that Druze Became feeling, and the regime official media canals have successes in evoking it.

On 24 March 2011, a statement signed by the sheikhs and scholars of Hauran denounced Al-Khalili. It stated that “Al-Khalili has insulted our people in Sweida, and thus insulted Hauran too. The leader of the Great Syrian Revolt is Hauran’s prime icon. Those mounting offensive accusations to our brothers and people in Sweida are not of us, for they are causing friction’. The statement insinuated that al-Khalili was a regime agent.

The statement did not succeed since those in touch with the people of Dar‘a were not particularly influential in Sweida. Later, several demonstrations in Dar‘a chanted in praise of Sweida and its people, and denounced al-Khalili publicly. A statement that was tantamount to an apology also appeared in the name of Al-Khalili. Nevertheless, the damage had been done, and people were more willing to believe the video evidence than any other rhetoric that followed.

Indeed, in response to al-Khalili’s video, poems boasting about the history of the Druze and their attitudes and zeal began to emerge. In certain instances, this was a gentle mobilization of the people, in others it openly voiced anger reminding others that the Druze could also retaliate. The poems reached a wide audience, especially in the countryside of the region, and pushed people further away from the Syrian revolution.

Whether Al-Khalili was a real Salafi, or just a regime agent as dissident proclaimed, is still unclear. The damage he inflicted, however, was formidable.

Non-violent Protests

A report on the Al-Jazeera website entitled "The Echoes of Citizenship: On the Protest Movement among Syrian Minorities” describes the following: “Activists in Sweida have faced since the beginning of the protest the phenomenon of Shabiha, which was a major obstacle. Any error in strategy could have serve [sic] the interest of the regime in creating a real civil conflict instead of the fabricated story of armed gangs. Nevertheless, this did not stop civil society mobilization. The province of Sweida was the first to endorse the protest movement in Dar‘a, when the syndicate of lawyers issued a supportive statement, and then when lawyers demonstrated in protest on 27 March, 2011, which was followed by the syndicate of engineers and then the students who reinvigorated the movement.”

On 24 March 2011, the lawyers syndicate of Sweida addressed a formal letter to the president of the republic, requesting a clear stand regarding the ‘events’ and the protection of  the security of the country and the citizen through the following measures: “lifting the siege on the city of Dar‘a and setting up an independent judiciary investigation – that would include the syndicate – of the incidents that transpired there; granting the media free access, lifting the emergency law and abolishing exceptional tribunals; granting the constitutional right of peaceful assembly and demonstration; extending a special amnesty to all political prisoners, releasing them immediately, and reinstating their civil rights; separating between powers and allowing for judiciary independence; and finally, limiting the authority of the security apparatus, including its role in overseeing appointment to public office”.

One of the lawyers who participated in this activity, Alaa Saymou’a, recalls that the letter was drafted on a Thursday evening, the 24th of March: “we stayed at the headquarters of the syndicate for more than three hours, debating with the president the need to take a stand regarding the siege of Dar‘a. We agreed to deliver the letter to the governor in his office, and to walk there in our formal attire in order to draw attention and mobilize the street in our favor. On Sunday the 27th of March, however, we were surprised to find the governor and his assistants waiting for us right outside the syndicate, in attempt to prevent our procession. This made us return to our headquarters, read the letter aloud, and stamp it with the syndicate official seal.” The lawyers then gathered outside the building in their formal attire and they raised a sign that said: “Dar‘a: no to murder, yes to freedom.”

This letter or/statement was one of most expressive documents of the spirit of the Syrian revolution. For it touched on all taboos of the country’s authoritarian regime. It asked for the dismantling of the entire system of oppression, and the reinstating of the Syrian people’s basic political rights, their freedom and dignity.

The gathering outside the syndicate, which included around seventy lawyers, was also the beginning of a particular form of activism that the Syrian revolution produced in Sweida: namely, an elite-based resistance to dictatorship that primarily relied on activists and intellectuals, without the popular base that other regions enjoyed.

From the 26 March 2011 onwards, a group of young activists started gathering in Al-Tirshan public square at the city center, lighting vigils in mourning of Syrian martyrs. The gatherings, which never lasted for more than two hours took place every evening and with time grew in size. It remained silent; the banners raised by the activists addressed the broader issues of freedom and social justice, only touching on recent Syrian events implicitly.

Members of the traditional opposition attended these gatherings, as well as security officers. The main bloc, however, was made up of young activists in their twenties or early thirties. They represented those who, in the wake of the Arab Spring, had found their voice, and discovered their ability to change their reality.

One of those young people, Kinda 22 years old, describes: “At that public square, the young activists lit vigils to vanquish the frightful darkness looming over Syria. Often they discussed politics in whispers; and set their ring tones to the famous song of Samih Shukair: Ya Haif”. Ya Haif was a song composed by a descendant of al-Karya, in the last days of March 2011, in response to the bloody events in Dar‘a. This song became a symbol of activism in the region, and represented an artistic atonement to the lack of popular mobilization that confronted the activists in Sweida.

A week after the daily gatherings started, the city square was surrounded by loud motorcyclists raising photos of the Syrian president. Rumors started spreading that all activists were going to be arrested. In those critical moments, Kinda, remembers whispering to her friend: “they want to muzzle our mouths”.

Kinda remembers that day well. The crowd of 400 quickly scattered in silence. “All shops closed down, and the sound of motorcycles was deafening. They kept driving madly around the park. The police did not interfere, even though the drivers were shouting insults and profanities at us. Rumors also circulated that two activists had been arrested”.

In the evening of the next day, when the group tried to gather once again, they were surprised to find tens of men and elderly members of the Ba’th party in the park, singing songs of the party. Radwan, who works in a bookshop remembers: “they sang a song that described the members of the Baath party on top of tanks. They stood close to one another, and had their backs turned to the passersby. I thought at the time they must be ashamed of themselves. Then, I saw between them my school teacher; he looked down, too embarrassed to face me.”

Marwan, a university student studying business affirms that his father was one of those Baathists, and that he had an altercation with him about it at home. The father explained that he couldn’t disobey the orders from his Baathist leaders, although he was not convinced, he did not have another option but to comply.

On the next day, a metal gate was installed at the entrance to the small garden in the middle of the plaza. A statue of Sultan al-Atrash riding his horse and carrying his sword is situated in the historic plaza where the government house stands, majestically built in the French style. Here, great gatherings took place, including former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1959 speech. It was there too that Bashar Al-Assad spoke in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, at which point he referred to Sweida as the “strongest rock”; a rock of supporter for the regime. He wanted to send by this image a message that the Druze in Sweida are separated from Druze in Lebanon and their political attitude against the Syrian exist in Lebanon after the assassination of Al-Hariri.

After many days, in the first week of April 2011, and when activists attempted to organize another demonstration at a different plaza, near the al-Tirshan guest house, they were surrounded by a security forces and asked to leave immediately. They were also filmed and accused of supporting the terrorists of Dar‘a. Kinda remembers: “the officer’s face was very pale; he stuttered but sounded genuine when he said that tens of solder’s bodies were at the national hospital’’. Most casualties among the security forces and the Syrian army in Dar‘a were taken at the time to the national hospital of Sweida, since Dar‘a was out of regime control.

  • 1. The main name of the south region in Syria which include Sweida and Dar’a.