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Albin Szakola

Druze fighters killed in Syria desert

Regime media says two militiamen were killed fighting ISIS in eastern Homs, while a local outlet in Suweida claims an errant Russian airstrike hit the NDF militiamen.

Suweida fighters. (Facebook/NDF-Suweida Center)

BEIRUT - Although residents of Suweida have long opposed serving in far-off fronts of the Syrian civil war, a number of young men from the Druze-populated province have reportedly been killed fighting ISIS in the Homs province, with one source saying a Russian aistrike hit the militiamen. 

 

On Tuesday, news outlets based in Suweida mourned the deaths of Omar Mounzer and Wissam Hazbah, two fighters from the local branch of the National Defense Force (NDF) that serves as an auxiliary militia force to the Syrian army.

 

The official outlet for NDF news explained that the men were killed “performing their sacred duties… in battles in the Al-Maher field in the eastern [desert] of Homs on November 22.”

 

Mounzer

A picture circulating social media shows Omar Mounzer, a lieutenant in the NDF. 
 

"Glory and eternity for the souls of our martyrs,” the Facebook page added, without going into further details on the circumstances of the latest Druze casualties in the Homs province.

 

Hazbah

A picture circulating social media shows Wissam Hazbah, a lieutenant in the NDF.

 

The Suweida News Network said that 14 other Suweida residents were injured in what it called an ISIS attack on Tuesday, identifying them as members of the Hazbah, Halabi and Nasr families among others.

 

The NDF in Suweida has “participated in the fighting against ISIS near the Shaer gas field [in the Homs province] for months,” the pro-regime outlet also said, noting that four men from the province had already been killed prior to Tuesday’s incident.

 

A local outlet with an editorial line against the Assad regime claimed that an errant Russian airstrike killed and injured the Druze fighters deployed in the flashpoint desert front against ISIS.

 

Suweida 24 cited a source in the NDF as saying that Russian jets hit the NDF troops near the Shaer field. The Facebook news page also publicized a leaked list of the dead and injured, which indicated most of them suffered from shrapnel wounds.

 

List

List of NDF casualties obtained by Suweida 24. (Facebook)

 

The outlet also wrote about the Druze contingent in eastern Homs, reporting that “the NDF in Suweida sent dozens of young men to the desert of Homs to fight ISIS… following a visit by Russian army officers to the leadership of the [NDF]” in the southern Syrian province. 

 

However, Suweida 24 did not elaborate further on the purported visit.

 

While Suweida is 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 other provinces of the country.

 

Pro-Assad figures in the province in mid-2015 ramped up efforts to press Druze youth in the province to join the army as rebels operating in the Daraa province to the west at the time notched battlefield victories over forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.

 

However, Druze youths in southern Syria have protested against the regime’s military conscription efforts, while the Sheikhs of Dignity have opposed young men joining the army to fight outside the province.

 

Prior Druze discontent over Homs fighting

 

BayrakSuweida

"Bayrak Suweida" fighters outside Palmyra. (Facebook/Suweida News Network)

 

Earlier in 2016, a contingent of Druze soldiers fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime previously withdrew from the Palmyra front following “mistreatment” and returned to their homes in Suweida.

 

The young men had all volunteered as a contingent called the “Bayrak Suweida” that fought under the direction of Syrian Military Security’s Branch 217, and took part in the April 2016 battles to seize the Jabal Antar area outside Palmyra during the regime’s campaign to wrest control of the UNESCO World Heritage Site from ISIS.

 

“With God’s help 63 fighters that were in Palmyra, including a number of injured, have returned to Suweida,” a local pro-Assad outlet based in the southern province reported on June 13.

 

The Suweida News Network added that the natives of the Druze-populated province were transported home on two buses provided by the command of the National Defense Force militias that serve as an auxiliary to the Syrian army.

 

In a detailed update to the story published the following day, the pro-regime Facebook news page explained that the Druze volunteers “did not receive proper and necessary treatment” despite their sacrifices fighting on behalf of government forces on the flashpoint front against ISIS.

 

Collage

Collage image of “Bayrak Suweida” fighters. (Facebook/Suweida News Network)
 
“Thanks to everyone who helped bring back our youth; special thanks to the leadership of the National Defense Force in Suwaida,” it said.
 

Step News explained that the Druze volunteers—who were commanded by a regime officer from the Raqqa province—were promised a salary of 110,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $220) for every month on the front, with 10 days-vacation included.

 

However, the fighters were not paid as promised while complaints rose over lack of care for the wounded, prompting the Suweida residents to leave the unit.

 

According to Step News, the Syrian officer in charge of the unit, Turki Abu Hamad, detained them outside Palmyra, before a National Defense Force leader in Suweida could intervene and secure their release.

 

A popular Facebook news page based in the Druze-populate province provided a similar account of the incident, saying that the National Defense Force in Suweida had to organize an armed force that went to the Palmyra region to access the detainees and “bring them back unharmed to Suweida.”

 

NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language source material.

A photo from 2014 shows fighters in the Suweida branch of the National Defense Force. (Facebook/NDF-Suweida Center)

The NDF in Suweida has “participated in the fighting against ISIS near the Shaer gas field [in the Homs province] for months."