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Druze cleric accuses
regime of shelling Suweida

Sheikh Waheed Balaous called for the arrest of the regime's military intelligence chief in the Druze province.

Sheikh Waheed Balaous. (Facebook)

BEIRUT – An influential Druze cleric has dropped a political bombshell in the beleaguered Suweida province, calling for the arrest of the local military intelligence chief and accusing the regime of shelling the provincial capital.

 

Mortar rounds struck the city of Suweida on Thursday for the first time since the start of the Syrian uprising, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirming the death of at least one person and the injury of several others.

 

Reports quickly emerged that the mortar fire had originated in regime controlled areas, amid fierce fighting west of Suweida between rebels and pro-government forces in the Al-Thaala Military Airbase.

 

Alaraby Aljadeed cited opposition sources as saying that “the shells may have been fired from a regime base to the east of the city.”

 

Meanwhile, Suweida residents who spoke to ARA News accused the Syrian regime of firing the shells, saying that it had done this “to incite sedition between [the Druze] and the inhabitants of Daraa province.”

 

Akram Hamza, a resident of the city, told the outlet that “the regime is lying when it says the shells are coming from the west of the city, that is, from the direction of the Free Syrian Army in Daraa.”

 

“The range of mortar shells is very short. They cannot travel that far… there is no logic that could accept the regime’s deceit.”

 

The Free Syrian Army-affiliated Southern Front that is seeking roll back regime forces from the Daraa province neighboring Suweida also accused the regime of bombing the Druze city.

 

“The Southern Front considers the shelling part of regime [efforts] to instill fear in the people of Suweida,” it said in a statement.

 

Sheikhs of Dignity move against Assad

 

Shortly after the mortar incident, the leader of the Druze “Sheikhs of Dignity”—a group of religious scholars that has taken stances critical of the Bashar al-Assad regime—accused the regime of perpetrating the shelling.

 

“We place all responsibility for the terrorist operations [in which] mortar shells [were] fired at safe Suweida with the security committee in the province, which has not been equal to [its] higher national responsibility,” Sheikh Waheed Balaous said in a statement published on Facebook.

 

The influential Druze figure also called for “the civil arrest of the chief of the Military Intelligence Branch in Suweida, Wafiq Nasser.”

 

“He [must] be held to account for the seditious plans he has made and on which he is still working.”

 

The Druze opposition figure also threw down the gauntlet for further action against the regime, calling on Suweida residents “to mobilize and be fully prepared to meet any eventuality.”

 

His comments come less than a week after his group reportedly blocked a regime convoy that was said to be shipping heavy weapon systems out of the province.

 

“The province is being stripped of weapons,” Balaous wrote on his Facebook page, adding that “we will not accept, under any pretext whatsoever, the removal of the army’s equipment from its positions in Suweida province.”

 

On Tuesday, the activist-run news outlet Swaida Khabr reported that supporters of the Sheikhs of Dignity had stopped another convoy shipping surface-to-surface missiles out of the province, and posted a number of pictures of the rockets.

 

The next day, Balaous reiterated his call for Suweida residents to guard “all the province’s entries, exits and roads” to prevent weapons from being taken out of the province.

 

Growing Suweida rifts

 

Sheikh Balaous’ dramatic words come amid growing political rifts among the Druze of the Suweida province as the Southern Front advances in Daraa while ISIS has threatened the eastern outskirts of the Druze region.

 

While the Druze-populated areas of southern Syria are under regime control, residents of the region have generally maintained an autonomous attitude against not only Islamist rebels but also regime efforts to enlist Druze locals to fight in far-off areas of the country.

 

However, as the regime has faced growing pressure, pro-Assad figures in Suweida as well as the Druze community outside the province have attempted to rally support behind Damascus.

 

Earlier in the week, the spiritual chief of the Druze community in Syria issued a call for young men in Suweida to join the Syrian army.

 

“In answer to the call of the homeland, duty, President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s instructions, our adherence to our patriotic stances and our glorious history, the spiritual leadership of [the Druze community] […] is sending out ‘the National and Religious Call’ to all of our honorable sons who are able to bear arms […] and have not signed up for mandatory military service […],” Hikmat al-Hajari said in a written statement.

 

“In the name of Arab honor […] we hope that you will not fail [to answer] this call and [that you will] go to your recruitment centers in the province.”

 

The statement added that military service would be “within the borders of Suweida province.”

 

Druze youths in southern Syria have protested against the regime’s military conscription efforts in recent weeks, while residents of Druze-populated areas have moved to arm themselves.

 

In Lebanon, a pro-Syrian regime Druze figure, albeit with little influence among the minority community in Lebanon, said the country’s Druze were ready to form an army to defend their co-religionists in Syria.

 

Meanwhile, the leader of Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, called for reconciliation between the people of Daraa and Suweida, in an implicit call for southern Syrian Druze to reach an understanding with the rebels in the region.

 

Both statements came after the shocking massacre of Druze villagers at the hands of the Nusra Front in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, which has sparked further fears among the Druze community.

Sheikh Waheed Balaous issued a dramatic anti-regime statement. (Facebook)

He [must] be held to account for the seditious plans he has made and on which he is still working.