Druze leader's death brings home ghosts of Syria's war

Druze leader's death brings home ghosts of Syria's war
Analysis: Sheikh Wahed Balous fought to protect his community from Syria's war. After he was killed in a suspected regime bomb on Friday, Suweida's peace has been shattered.
6 min read
08 September, 2015
Syria's Druze are split between loyalty to the regime and neutrality [AFP]

For many Druze in Syria's southern province of Suweida, the militia leader Sheikh Wahid Balous was more than a figurehead.

Balous carried with him a fierce sense of dignity and pride which he projected onto his community, and protected them from all outside threats.

For over a year, his armed followers - the Sheikhs of Dignity- walked an unimaginable path, confronting the Syrian army and its allied militias in one of the most pro-regime areas of Syria.

Balous also managed to avoid entanglement with the Syrian opposition, but the two sides have swapped hostages with relative goodwill.

Ultimately, Balous ensured that the Druze of Suweida were not sucked into the quagmire that is the Syria war.

Peace shattered

On Friday, the relative quiet of the city was shattered when two bombs exploded - killing Balous and 24 others.

Two days later, Syrian state TV reported a confession from captured "militant" Wafi Abu Trabi who said he planted the bombs on behalf of al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise.

Balous' death was not a surprise - he had made many enemies on both sides of Syria's war.

Car bombs have long been a weapon of choice by Damascus. Balous was also a popular figure with the Syrian opposition, people pointed out. 

Few in Suweida believe the official version of events and know who will gain most from his removal.

After Balous' death, once-loyal Suweida looks like a tinder box. Many predict that the Druze city could be the next to be swept up in Syria's war.

The city watchman

Balous first emerged on the scene in 2014 - and soon became known as a brave and tough enforcer of Druze rights and dignity - apparently completely unconcerned with the consequences.

During the build-up to the sham election of Bashar al-Assad in April 2014, soldiers in Suweida erected a campaign tent for the Syrian president.

Some of the troops encouraged a mentally ill local woman to dance with a picture of the leader.

Infuriated at this mocking of a vulnerable local woman, Balous and his men marched to the scene, destroyed the tent, and assaulted the organisers. They then escorted the woman away to a secure place.

This moment saw Balous' fame and popularity in the city skyrocket, becoming the latest in a long line of Druze outlaws and rebels.

"I think he was popular because he tapped into widespread grievances in Suweida regarding corruption," said Aymenn J al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Tamimi said that, when Balous entered the scene in 2014, there was growing disgruntlement against the regime's handling of the war, including forced conscription.

Balous pitched a "third way" that called for serious reforms of the regime's system, but was pragmatic enough to avoid direct war with Damascus.

This is a compromise that has denoted Druze rebellions since the French occupation of Syria, and before.

Peace and unity

Suweida is relatively sleepy city compared with other parts of Syria.

However, as the war enters its fifth year it has been seriously sapped of manpower, with the death of conscripts and recruits a lasting reminder of the mass destruction of Syria's war.

The city is a bastion of the Druze religious community, and has retained a distinct culture from neighbouring Sunni provinces and Alawite groups.

Long perceived as one of the regime's most loyal provinces, Damascus could afford to leave a relatively light footprint in the area.

The Druze have remained nominally neutral throughout the war.

Since 2014, Tamimi said that "generic" pro-regime brands - such as Jaysh al-Muwahhideen - have been challenged by Balous' alternative pitch of Druze populism - that would see Suweida avoid the worst excesses of the war.

This challenge saw the regime enforce its control through a number of local militias formed under the Dir al-Watan umbrella organisation, and the armed wing of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

"The regime has had to concede more over time and yielded ground to focus on local defences. Hence the emergence of Dir al-Watan as a pro-regime rival to Balous' faction," he said.

Some of the key events that led to the rise of Balous' militia include the fall of Idlib province to the rebels, and continued corruption and cronyism within regime forces.

Damascus has also been helpless to stop Nusra from reportedly forcing Druze to convert to Islam in areas under its control, or the massacre of at least 22 Druze civilians in Idlib province by the al-Qaeda franchise.

Nusra has a strong presence in neighbouring Daraa province and poses a threat to the community. Many believe that armed Druze should concentrate on this threat, rather than send their men to fight rebel groups in distant parts of the country.

Many young men also feel they are being used as cannon fodder in the war.

"There was resistance to conscription in far out fronts for no purpose," Tamimi said.

"This is held in other regime-areas but one thing that exacerbated it was the Islamic State group massacres of regime personnel at isolated bases such as Division 17 in Raqqa."

Many of the soldiers and officers massacred by IS following the fall of the Raqqa airbase in July 2014 were from Suweida.

Their gruesome beheadings were broadcast by IS through social media and caused anger in regime areas.

Thorn in the side

By summer 2014, Sheikhs of Dignity were becoming a thorn in the side of Damascus.

In January, they helped destroy an air force intelligence checkpoint in Suweida province, after soldiers insulted and assaulted local Druze civilians.

At the Battle of Dama in August, Balous joined sides with the regime to fight Nusra. He lashed out at the army after the battle, furious that the regime fired on his men from behind.

Balous was also known to let local young Druze men take refuge in his home. By encouraging locals to avoid government conscription - at a time when Syria's manpower is seriously depleted - he clearly drew the line for independence from state control.

His last public act was on September 1, when his fighters protected protesters against security forces during anti-corruption demonstrations.

After the killing of Balous three days later, his supporters gathered outside a police station.

Infographic: The Syrian graveyard [Click to enlarge]

Reports emerged that there were clashes with security officers, the raiding of government offices, and that a statue of former president Hafez al-Assad was felled.

When Balous was laid to rest, an emotional and angry congregation lined past government buildings in an apparent sign of protest.


However, Tamimi believes that messages spread on the Sheikhs of Dignity social media pages about Suweida being "liberated" were false.

Many in Suwaida are also mindful that the province is susceptible to falling to Nusra fighters - or far worse, IS militants.

"There had been no official statement from [Sheikhs of Dignity] apart from a vow to continue operating," Tamimi said.

"Some supporters are undoubtedly enraged and blame the regime for his death but this is not the official position."

He also said that clashes have taken place between Balous' supporters and the regime - many reports suggest at least six security officers were killed this weekend.

Opposition groups have also reported that there is express anger at the regime, and large-scale rebellion in the region appears imminent.

"I think further tensions and localised clashes can emerge, but both sides are ultimately bound by mutually assured destruction," Tamimi said.

Despite Balous' death, Tamimi believes this is not the last we have heard of his rebellious outfit, which could yet challenge Damascus' authority.

"Sheikhs of Dignity could grow in size - but more radical splinters could emerge from it," he said.

If Suweida were to fall it would be a crushing blow for the Syrian regime, and difficult for it to recover.

It might also encourage more rebellions in regime heartlands - by working-class loyalists - after the losses of their sons, power cuts, hyperinflation and endemic corruption.

Many in the area realise that even if Damascus wins the war, their own lot in life is unlikely to improve.