Syria: Houran’s Brush With Civil War
By: Firas Choufi
Published Thursday, May 31, 2012
This week, the southern province of Sweida in Syria was on the verge of erupting in violence after over a dozen police officers from the area were kidnapped by militants from nearby Daraa.
Sunday is a typical work day in Syria, but last Sunday was anything but typical for 13 police officers from the southern province of Sweida. At 6am, they were kidnapped in the town of Kherba near Sanamein by some gunmen along with the driver of the minibus that takes them to work in the police stations of Daraa.
The event was undoubtedly disconcerting for their loved ones in Sweida given the outcome of similar incidents since the outbreak of protests and violence in Syria last spring. Already, 107 military personnel from the Sweida region have lost their lives in the conflict. Of them, 36 have been killed in Daraa – five in clashes with gunmen and 31 in isolated attacks.
Army officer Neshat Aqel, brother of general Nayef Aqel, was kidnapped and killed alongside two others in the town of al-Maliha. Their “executioners” faulted them for simply being from Sweida, and the video of their execution circulated throughout Syria via mobile phone.
At present, eight soldiers from Sweida are still missing. The countrysides of Aleppo, Hama, and Homs have become “black holes” for the youth of Sweida, such as sergeant Yamen al-Taqqi, who vanished a month and a half ago and has not been heard from since.
Collectively, Sweida had thus far gritted its teeth and born the pain of such events, perhaps to avoid escalation and in order to maintain national unity. “What matters to us is the safety of our children,” says a brother of one of the kidnapped officers.
This time, the villages of Sweida erupted in anger. As soon as the news of the kidnappings spread to villages, Sweidans young and old began to mobilize. All roads leading to Daraa were surrounded and roadblocks were erected everywhere.
The families of those kidnapped raided farms close to the area that divides the two provinces. Public transportation came to a halt as people searched for the men. For two days, the province was overcome by madness. Calls by the clergy for calm were of no use – revenge and kidnapping reigned supreme.
Suddenly, the number of those abducted from Daraa began to rise: 50, 60, then 100. When all was said and done, more than 240 residents of the Daraa governorate had been abducted. The kidnappers pledged not to harm their hostages.
In the prayer house of al-Sihwa, Sheikh Abu Wael Hamad al-Hannawi called for calmer heads to prevail. “What is this talk of Daraa and Sweida? They are both called Houran, plain and mountain. We are one people, and we’ve been living together our whole lives in this region,” he exclaimed.
“The people of Sweida must return all of those kidnapped from Daraa. What fault is it of innocent people if some outlaws did what they did? Whoever abducted those young men were not people of Houran. They were gunmen alien to our land, our religion, and our culture. Daraa must not be judged by the offenders. One abduction must not be exchanged for another,” he adds.
Al-Hannawi called on people to put their country first, spare the bloodshed and stop the violence. He voices support for the political reforms announced by President Bashar Assad, and stresses that the Muwahideen (Druze) are Muslims first and foremost.
Former Lebanese minister of environment and Druze leader Wiam Wahhab shook his head in approval, saying “the instructions of the sheikh and the Sheikh Akls (Druze highest religious authority) are commands.” Sweida has given Wahhab what his own constituency in the Lebanese Chouf has not, and will not, give him.
Sweida’s protesters carried him through the streets. They listened as he told them of the discord that the enemies of Syria wish to sow between the Druze and Sunnis. Wahhab regaled them with stories of the Great Revolt in Syria’s Jabal al-Druze and how their ancestors drove the French colonizers out of Syria.
The fuse of the revolt was a guest staying with their hero Sultan Basha al-Atrash named Adham Khanjar, “the rebel of Jabal Amel (in southern Lebanon) in his time,” who had attempted to assassinate General Gouraud, the French high commissioner in Syria. For protection, Khanjar took refuge in the home of al-Atrash.
“The revolt happened because a guest was kidnapped,” said Wahhab, reminding his audience of their responsibility to keep the hostages safe as they photographed him with their phones and listened to him eagerly. “You must release those who have been abducted. They have done nothing wrong,” he added.
If Wahhab were to run in Sweida, he would be the uncontested winner of the governorate’s votes. The people here want someone to lead them. Sweida called his name saying, “we won’t take one step forward without you.”
Pictures of Hafez and Bashar Assad are hung not just in the home of the Sheikh Akl but also in the squares of the town. Sweida has historically been a stronghold of support for the Assad regime.
Meanwhile, in nearby Qanawat, Sheikh al-Hajari was telling his visitors from Jaramana (one of the suburbs of Damascus) about the outcome of negotiations with the kidnappers. The sheikh has grown out his beard recently after succeeding his late brother Sheikh Ahmad Selman al-Hajari as the new First Sheikh Akl. In his villa, there is a picture of Sheikh Ahmad next to another of President Bashar Assad.
“We did not come in fear, we came to see you, sheikh, and check up on you,” says one of the visitors. The sheikh responds by talking about the bonds of love that hold the people of Syria together. He speaks at length about patriotism saying, “We are Syrians first and foremost.”
Sheikh Hussein Jarbou for his part believes that “colonialism is the same, but it has taken on a new form.” He says, “NATO has begun fighting using mercenaries. It no longer wastes its soldiers. They bring us the phenomenon of the new Arab-Afghans to destroy our country.”
The sounds of “hida (local variety of folk music) and popular music” reach the ears of Sheikh Hussein as he steps out to his balcony before a crowd of protesters. He and his guest Wahhab emerge to say “Don’t worry, our boys are fine. They will be back tomorrow.”
He struggles to absorb the anger of the crowd. They have lost people dear to them. Now, Sweidans young and old want to take up arms. They have left the fields and factories in Salkhad, Shebha, and Shefa and are demanding arms in self defense.
Suddenly, the peaceful people tending to the groves of olives, cherries, apricots, grapes, and figs have become an angry mob blocking the streets and demanding weapons saying, “We have not seen our homes since Sunday. We’ve been on the road for two days.”
Away from the frenzied protests, Sheikh Hennawi conducts difficult negotiations with the militants in Daraa. Adham Abboud or “Abul-Hijeh” is on the other end of the line.
“Sheikh,” Abul-Hijeh says, “we want the bodies that are being withheld by the state.” He says that the reason for the kidnapping has nothing to do with the particular sect of the soldiers or their villages of origin. To him, they are soldiers of Bashar Assad, and it is upon the people of Sweida to pressure the Syrian state to hand over the bodies.
The clerics meet and discuss amongst themselves. The meeting lasts longer than two hours. The officials and the governor think this is a lame excuse for the abductions. The state has no reason to withhold the bodies. They had asked the families to come identify their children to hand over their bodies. They are the bodies of militants who were killed in skirmishes with the army.
The clerics and elders appreciate what the state did. It responded quickly to work towards securing the release of the kidnapped officers. On Monday, they handed over five bodies as a sign of goodwill and followed up with more the next day.
There was a great stir in Daraa as well. What have these militants done to the province is more than it can bare. Local officials in the city and villages can see no reason for the kidnappings. To their minds, the unlucky police officers simply have no choice but to fulfill their duties.
The people of Daraa have also been complaining about militants crossing the Jordanian border. There are Libyan fighters and Arabs of other nationalities spread out in the Leja Mountains.
For two nights Hawran was seething. Finally, the negotiations between Sheikh Hennawi and Abul-Hijeh bore fruit. On Tuesday, elders from the two provinces met in an area close to the village of Bosra. The two sides exchanged hostages. Not a single drop of blood was shed. “Perhaps this can be an experience for the future. We do not want any discord to take place, and it won’t,” says one of the participants in the surrender and exchange operation.
The experience produced an agreement between the elders of the two provinces. Touching any civilian is prohibited. Abduction and counter-abduction are forbidden and alien to the people of the mountain and the plain. Whoever breaks this agreement will bear full responsibility for the consequences. They hope that this will prevent future escalations, but there are no guarantees.
On the sidelines of the exchange operation, a discussion was taking place between the state and local officials in Sweida. Sweida and Daraa are mutually codependent and have shared interests. State employees and business owners depend on this unity.
More than 1,000 police officers and 600 teachers from Sweida work in Daraa. Who can guarantee that the militants will not touch them and permanently undo the fragile stability? Some suggest transferring the teachers and police officers to Damascus and exchanging them for residents of Damascus until the crisis has passed. This solution appears “logical” to avoid discord in the presence of militants and strangers in the Daraa province, but this temporary solution can be seen as caving in to division. To which the officials respond, "The fear of the worse makes you settle for the bad."
Who says that the country is at war? At 7am the sun breaks the cold. Sanitation workers pick up bits of trash in Sweida’s main square and restore to the city its purity. There on the western corniche someone is watering seedlings and flowers. Public works continue in their natural way. Some men move new utility poles and put them near the main road where they will be erected.
These waves of madness come and go. Perhaps not every day will pass in peace. After all, in the midst of the pain in Sweida, an armed group was blocking the road between the governorate and Damascus in a village called Kharibat al-Sheyat.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.