Reports of clashes in the Druze area of southern Syria around Suwayda assert that men were killed in clashes with the Russian-backed 5th Corps, a unit that was recruited in Syria in the last several years.
The Druze community in southern Syria has largely remained apart from the vicious fighting of the last nine years, often siding with Damascus and suffering from ISIS attacks, but trying to remain relatively independent as they have been throughout history. Several well-known Druze commanders were instrumental in fighting for the regime, but there were tensions with the community and rumors that the regime didn't do enough to protect Suwayda.
Now reports indicate that up to fifteen were killed in clashes in southern Syria between the Druze community and its fighting units, and the 5th Corps. The full details of what led to this are unclear. The following reports are based largely on social media accounts and local media video.
Hussein Khattab tweeted photos of Druze at a funeral on Wednesday in the town of Qarya. North Press agency noted that mourners had forced regime party members of the Ba'ath Party to leave due to anger over the clashes. Suwayda is around 70 km. from the Golan Heights and 50 km. from Dara'a near the Jordanian border.
Reports of the clashes began on September 29 with claims that the 5th Corps attacked the Druze Mountain or Jabal Druze, the area of their communities. These were the fiercest clashes ever recorded, locals said, noting that the NDF units and Druze "factions" launched a "large-scale attack to take back a contested area occupied by 5th Corps near Quraya (Qarya) in western Suwayda. The Russian-backed corps allegedly bombed the attackers and used artillery, with dozens of casualties resulting. Members of the Syrian Arab Army, the regime army, were also allegedly killed.
There is a background of tensions going back years. Even recently a teacher was allegedly fired for posting against the regime. Sources in eastern Syria covering the clashes said that up to 14 were killed and 62 injured, and said the battle was with the 8th brigade of the 5th corps. It was unclear why press sources based in eastern Syria had such knowledge of the clashes.
The US has a base nearby at Tanf, but there are no Druze linked to the base and there are no noticeable numbers of Druze serving with the US-backed SDF in eastern Syria. North Press said fighting resumed on Wednesday.
Suwayda 24, another news report group put up posts on Facebook about the clashes. The article said the Druze wanted back agricultural lands "penetrated" by the 5th corps or its members, who are mostly Arabs. The report said 15 were killed in the clashes. One photo of fighters noted "our land is ours, forbidden to others."
Another account posted online said that militias that were killing the Druze are from the area of Dara'a in southern Syria and were led by Ahmed al-Awda.
Awda is known as a former rebel leader who joined the Russian-backed 5th corps. He was called "Russia's spoiled boy" in some accounts earlier this year. Chatham House detailed his important role in "Busra al-Sham" and his relations with the Russians. Busra al-Sham is south of Suwayda. Another article noted that in recent weeks, the 5th Corps' 8th brigade, which is led by Awda, has suffered numerous attacks that "follow an agreement made the previous week with the government of Syria granting the 5th corps freedom of movement."
On September 17, a key fighter who is linked to Awda was injured in an attack. The Guardian called Awda a unique figure: "to some he is a traitor, who cut a deal when Dara'a province, his home, fell to the regime two years ago. To others the 38-year-old is still a promising revolutionary, one who has just vowed to rebuild Syria's fragmented opposition." Busra is around 25 km. from Suwayda.
Photos showed a large funeral for the men who lost their lives. This has serious ramifications for the regime, which has generally treaded lightly because it needs support and it needs fighters and doesn't want to antagonize southern Syria amid its manpower shortages. However the regime forces in the South have been able to return to the area largely through reconciliation with former free Syrian army rebel units, incorporating them into regime forces. It did this by offering some amnesty and then later arresting people.
Since 2018 when the regime returned to the area, there have been many small clashes and assassinations. It is unclear if the regime has now conspired to use former Syrian rebel members to antagonize the Druze as part of a strategy to send a message and create a traditional divide-and-conquer reality of using different communities against each other.
Turkey has pioneered this method in northern Syria, using Syrian Sunni Arabs and Turkmen against Kurds so as to make them fight each other and thus forget about the conflict with Damascus, while Turkey works with Russia and Iran.
Damascus is known for its cynical use of different communities against one another, telling Christians one thing, Shi'ites another, Druze something else, tribes another thing and Sunni Arabs a different narrative, even allegedly releasing extremists from prison at times to discredit protesters.
Further details on the clashes were posted on Al-Modon. The account said that they took place along the administrative borders of Dara'a and Suwayda. It noted that Hazem Abu Hadeer of the National Defense Forces in Suwayda was killed. Mortar shells were used; school has been cancelled in the area.
The Druze spiritual leader from Israel, Sheikh Muwaffaq Tarif, said that the attack could cost the aggressors dearly. There have now been contacts between Druze leaders throughout the Middle East. Local leaders have also reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry, warning of a deterioration in the security situation.
The governorate of Suwayda has warned Russia about appearing as an "occupying state" in the area. Suwayda has been angry for the collapse of the economy in the area. There have been protests and a sit-in.
The article links the clashes to others in Dara'a which followed a bus attack on June 20 where soldiers were killed near Kahil in a bus carrying 5th Corps members from Latakia back to Busra a-Sham, after being trained. Nine were killed. There were protests against Iran and Hezbollah at the time, reports said.
Overall, the reports from Suwayda are still complex and not all details are known. However, losses among the Druze community will be felt by the community across the region. They are the worst casualties since ISIS kidnapped women and committed a genocidal type of attack in 2018.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.