Druze sheikhs sound the alarm bell

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Druze sheikhs sound the alarm bell
Marlin Dick| The Daily Star/Jan. 31, 2015

BEIRUT: A fiery 15 minutes of anti-regime polemic by a midlevel Syrian Druze sheikh which emerged on YouTube this week has sparked an unprecedented level of tension in the southern province of Swaida/ The speech was delivered by Sheikh Wahid (Abu Fahd) al-Balous, a middle-aged man surrounded by several dozen supporters at his home in a village near the provincial capital Swaida; several members of the audience are seen openly filming his comments. Balous’ animated monologue, edited into a dozen or so separate sections, contains a litany of complaints about the regime’s behavior in a province in which military operations have been almost completely absent, while tens of thousands of non-Druze Syrians continue to take refuge there.

Regime officials are believed to be incensed by the decision, taken in 2013 by Druze religious figures, forbidding members of the sect to take up arms outside their province, as the majority of conscription-age Druze continue to avoid military service. In the video, Balous alluded to a whole series of incidents in recent months that have prompted his informal movement, dubbed the “mashayekh [sheikhs] of dignity,” to respond to regime provocations. These include a battle between Druze locals and Nusra Front-allied fighters in the village of Dama last August, which saw 42 Druze fighters killed, and armed confrontations in the province of Qunaitra, also home to many Druze, against rebel groups.

Balous accused the authorities of betraying the Druze in both instances, at one point shouting “they were shooting us in the back!” during the Dama battle. The most powerful criticism, however, is directed at President Bashar Assad and Col. Wafiq Nasser, believed to be the top security official in Swaida province. Balous reels off a string of criticism against regime loyalists for accusing his movement of sowing dissent and sectarianism.

“Our patriotic stance is more honorable than every Alawite!” he shouts. “And yet we’re being called the ‘ISIS of the Druze!’” “Everyone in Jabal al-Druze [Swaida], from all sects – Druze, Sunni, Alawite, Shiite, Christian – are protected by [us]!” he shouts, rejecting the description of the Assad regime as the protector of the country’s minority communities.

“We want an honorable state, not a state of corrupt people!” Blaming the security authorities for the deaths of a handful of Druze residents under torture, he addresses Assad, challenging him to live up to his presidential responsibility to protect the country’s citizens. “And if you can’t do this, goodbye! We don’t want him. We’ll go the Presidential Palace and bring him down.”“We don’t want a president who instigates [needless] battles and smuggles cigarettes and drugs,” he says, the latter an allusion to criminal networks believed to be tolerated by the regime.

“Our dignity is more precious than him!”As for Nasser, Balous at one point uses a phrase to indicate that the officer has been marked for a revenge attack, but at an unspecified point in the future. The fiery remarks came after the latest uptick in tension last week, when air force intelligence personnel manning a checkpoint on the edge of Swaida insulted and cursed at a busload of civilian state employees. Balous reportedly gave the order to remove the checkpoint and when this was ignored, his men destroyed it themselves.

There have been indications that the authorities intend to re-establish the checkpoint, but until now nothing has happened to set off another direct confrontation. During Balous’ remarks, the sheikh accuses other sects of having countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to offer them protection, while the Druze have no such foreign patron – he explicitly states that his sect rejects any ties with Israel, and any partition of the country. The remarks against Assad and the Alawites, not surprisingly, generated a wave of angry responses on social media that have only rebounded in Balous’ favor, according an observer familiar with Swaida and the informal media sector that has sprung up during the war.

Several pro-regime Facebook pages used obscene and insulting language to describe Balous and his followers, with some calls for Assad to attack the city of Swaida and “bring it down on the heads” of locals. “There is a huge dispute over Balous, but in general he is uniting the Druze more than dividing them,” the observer said. “When known Alawite or loyalist figures attack him, Balous ends up receiving more support from Druze on ‘either side,’ both pro- and anti-regime,” he continued.

The observer speculated that Balous seemed to be adept at maneuvering through the complex and sensitive aspects of wartime politics. “He seems to be aware that he can’t take the initiative to start a direct confrontation with the regime,” the observer said, “but he’s certainly benefiting from the extremely high level of popular anger to stand up to any regime provocation.” During his rant, Balous also repeated accusations by others that the regime has no problem engaging in fuel deals with ISIS militants, while Druze who seek similar arrangements with jihadi groups are accused of “weakening the national economy.”

Interestingly, the week also saw an odd incident that brought together Faisal al-Qassem, the stridently anti-regime Al-Jazeera personality, and the Islam Army rebel militia that operates mainly in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The militia released three female Druze hostages it had held since storming the suburb of Adra more than a year ago, as a salute to the relentlessly anti-regime stances of Qassem on TV and social media.

But the three women who were released all happened to be from the Balous family, prompting speculation the move was also directed as a message of goodwill toward the sheikh who has raised eyebrows with his stance against the regime in Swaida. The observer said that while Balous’ criticism of the regime and his popular support have risen to unprecedented levels, “he’s too smart to be tempted to move closer to the opposition” as represented by the National Coalition or the many armed FSA and Islamist groups. “Everyone is against the checkpoint, but not everyone supports an open confrontation with the regime.”