And it’s the traditional leaders of society, religious men and prominent civilians, who are stepping in to ease ethnic and sectarian tensions. Swaida’s dignitaries have taken up this role, much as their fellow peacemakers are intervening in conflicts between Arabs and Kurds in the north and east, Alawites and Sunnis in Homs and Hama, and Shiites and Sunnis in Aleppo and Idlib.
The Druze of Syria have largely rejected the movement to topple the Assad regime, but the province of 400,000 people has accepted internal refugees and was a source of aid to besieged neighbors in Daraa. They have also defied repeated requests from one of the sect’s top leaders, Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt, who has urged the Druze to collectively join opponents of the Assad regime.
Swaida’s protest movement has grown in recent months.
Rima Flihan, a member of the National Coalition and a Druze from Swaida, said the province was “the lung [for Daraa], and used to regularly sneak humanitarian aid to Daraa, including medicine and bread through secret routes.” The provincial capital, Swaida, had its first protest on March 25, 2011, and a large protest in Sultan al-Atrash Square in April 2011, but the opposition’s activity was limited there and was instead centered in the smaller city of Shahba, she added.
(Although some small rebel brigades from Swaida have been announced in YouTube videos, the province’s opposition groups have largely remained nonviolent.)
Daraa residents noticed the help from their neighbors. “Most of the participation in the beginning was humanitarian [and included] sending aid to Daraa,” said Zaidoun Al Zoabi, an activist from Daraa and a former member of the National Coordination Body (NCB), an opposition group based in Damascus that’s tolerated by the Assad regime.
Swaida’s meager participation angered Assad loyalists in the province. Supporters of the Assad regime in Swaida mobilized around the government, responding in part to a fear campaign that painted the uprising as a radical Islamist movement that was hostile to minorities such as the Druze, which many Muslims consider a heterodox sect.
“The regime used sectarian language to terrify the Druze about the Salafi threat, using its tools such as [Lebanese Druze pro-Assad politician] Wi’am Wahhab and others” to deliver the message, Zoabi said. This divisive rhetoric was fueled by the scant coverage that Swaida’s opposition activists received from “pan-Arab satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which only concentrated on the Sunni areas that rose up against the regime,” he added.
Animosity between the sects increased and turned violent, starting with kidnappings between armed groups in Swaida and Daraa. On May 25, the Mu’tasim Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), based in neighboring Daraa, kidnapped 14 Druze soldiers from Swaida who were heading to a prison in Daraa. The act was seen as a sectarian provocation in Swaida, and militants there responded by kidnapping over 60 people from different areas in Daraa.
After the kidnappings, Swaida’s Local Coordination Committee, an opposition group, brought together religious leaders and activists from the two provinces to form a mediation committee to negotiate with the FSA. The diverse group of elites from several religious backgrounds included: Sheik al Aql Abu Wael Hamoud Hanaoui, an influential Druze religious leader; Rami Hanaoui, an activist from Swaida who is currently detained by the Assad regime; Dr. Ayham Haddad, an opposition activist from Daraa living in the U.S.; and Dr. Zaidoun Al Zoabi, a regime opponent from Daraa who currently lives in Damascus. Other members in the committee living in Syria had to remain anonymous for security reasons.
The committee’s inaugural effort was successful. Sheik Hanaoui secured the release of the hostages in Swaida first, as a gesture of goodwill. Subsequently, the FSA released its prisoners.
Yet in the months that followed, abductions became more frequent and random, and according to pro-revolution activists in both provinces, with motivations oscillating between profit and sectarian reasons. Sheik Hanaoui told Syria Deeply that the people of Swaida have become enraged and feel that everyone has become a target for abduction.
“Our people get stopped at checkpoints and are asked which sect they belong to. Once the militias hear that they are from Swaida, our men disappear,” Sheik Hanaoui said.
Flihan said that rebels are wrong to label Swaida as pro-regime due to the presence of a significant population of Assad supporters in the province. “This doesn’t justify kidnapping … There are people in every province that support the regime, and this is not an excuse for a province to be punished,” she said.
The interregnum created by a receding government in Syria forced civilians to act, or risk a spiraling of these types of hostilities. This danger is heightened as the rebellion approaches regions where religious and ethnic minorities are local majorities, such as Swaida, the Mediterranean coast and mountain range, Kurdish majority cities, and Salamiyeh in Hama, and the only answer so far has been for civilian leaders to stem the cycle of violence.
But the introduction of a new element, the jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra in Daraa, has added another layer of complexity to the conflict. In December, Nusra fighters attacked a checkpoint near Swaida but weren’t able to make a clean getaway. Swaida’s pro-regime popular committees, a euphemism for shabiha, killed two Nusra fighters and detained some of its fighters.
Nusra responded by kidnapping 17 people from Swaida including Sheik Abu Khaled Jamal Iz al Din, a respected Druze leader, and refused to release them until its fighters were freed. This YouTube video from Dec. 27 showed the hostages held by Jabhat Al Nusra pleading for Druze religious and tribal leaders, including Sheik Hanaoui, to cut a deal with the group.
Sheik Hanaoui said he led a delegation from Swaida and met with four Nusra fighters in Om Walad village in Daraa province. After hours of talks, the delegation came to an agreement with Nusra to release the hostages, Hanaoui said, but added that Nusra then broke the agreement for unknown reasons.
Nusra hasn’t commented on the incident.
“Solving problems between Swaida and Daraa has become difficult. Our mission has gotten more complicated because of Jabhat Al Nusra. They won’t listen to anybody,” said Ayham Haddad, a political activist based in the U.S. and a member of the first mediation committee.
“Jabhat Al Nusra sees the Druze as infidels, therefore they see attacking and kidnapping them as justified,” said Zoabi, the Daraa activist. The group “has no local reference here, and their excommunicating ideology is catastrophic in societies like Syria.”
The tension in Swaida and Daraa could be replicated across the country as the central government recedes and the vacuum is gradually filled by rebel groups, many of whom are jihadists and are unwelcome by minorities in Syria. Minor disputes in such a charged environment could easily mutate into uncontainable sectarian strife, demonstrating the danger of allowing the conflict in Syria to fester.
“For now the sectarian problem is under control, but if it is not solved quickly, it will engulf the entire region,” Zoabi said.