Militias clash in southern Syria's Suweida as security conditions degrade
Hostilities between opposition and regime-affiliated militias in southern Syria's Suweida province ended after the latter withdrew on Thursday, concluding a week of escalating violence between the groups.
Druze-dominated Suweida has largely stayed out of the Syrian civil war, preferring to maintain its own security than align with either the opposition or the Assad regime.
Security conditions have deteriorated in recent years after the Syrian regime retook southern Syria in the summer of 2018. Since then, gangs have carried out frequent kidnappings and assassinations in the area, prompting the intervention of local militias, some of which are affiliated with the Syrian opposition.
The area's residents largely believe the regime either directly fund local gangs or allow them to act with impunity, and see it as a strategy to weaken the local authorities and allow the regime to tighten its grasp on the province.
“The security services use these gangs to arrest activists and prevent demonstrations by threatening and attacking demonstrators,” Ma’an Khadaj, an activist living in Suweida told The New Arab.
The latest conflict between militia groups started last week after a newly formed opposition group, the “anti-terrorist forces” (ATF), arrested two members of a local regime-affiliated militia who were alleged to be in possession of drugs, several knives, and numerous cell phones.
The ATF claimed the men were attempting to assassinate members of their faction on behalf of Syrian military intelligence. As proof, the group posted pictures of one of the men’s ID cards, which identified him as a member of state intelligence, or mukhabarat.
The men belonged to a local, regime-affiliated faction led by a man named Raji Falahout. Falahout’s group is believed to work on behalf of the regime’s military intelligence, and to be behind numerous kidnappings in Suweida, Khadaj said. The group is known to profit off of the ransoms made off the kidnappings.
In retaliation for the arrest of the group’s members, Falahout's men set up roadblocks on the highway that leads from Suweida to Damascus. According to local media outlet Suweida24, the group blocked off the road for at least two days and attacked civilians traveling on the highway.
Falahout’s group eventually arrested and confiscated the weapons of two members of the local militia “Men of Dignity,” a non-aligned Druze militia established in 2012 to protect the governorate during the Syrian civil war.
This prompted the intervention of Men of Dignity, who sent hundreds of militiamen to surround the town of Attil where the group had set up their roadblocks. The group then began carrying out raids throughout Suweida province targeting members of the Falahout group, which prompted retaliatory gunfire in at least one case, Suweida24 reported.
Regime military intelligence denounced the actions of Falahout’s group, saying they had no affiliation with the militia. However, after Falahout threatened to publish evidence of military intelligence’s involvement in kidnappings and splitting of ransoms with the group, military intelligence intervened to extricate Falahout and placate the Men of Dignity, Khadaj said.
Men of Dignity withdrew from the highway and lifted their siege of Attil shortly after Falahout pulled out of the area.
The province’s relations with the regime have declined alongside stability in the area, in addition to the regime’s response to protests which have appeared sporadically since the summer of 2020. Syria’s economic decline led many residents to the streets, who demanded the regime improve living conditions and ensure subsidized products were available on the shelves.
In response to the protests, regime security services arrested a number of demonstrators and, according to local residents, empowered local gangs as a means of breaking the will of protesters.