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Makram Rabah & Rami Nakhla

The killing of Sheikh Wahid Bal’ous

The late Druze Sheikh Abu Fahed Wahid al-Bal

Thousands of enraged Syrians took to the streets last Thursday chanting and demanding the removal of Bashar al-Assad, going as far as destroying a statue of his father, former President Hafez al-Assad.

 

This event would have gone unnoticed if it had taken place in any other region than the Druze province of Suweida, the support of which the Assad regime never questioned until recently. The reason for the uproar was the assassination of Sheikh Wahid al-Bal’ous and 26 others who belonged to the Rijal al-Karama ) Men of Dignity) movement.

 

Led by Bal’ous, a junior cleric with no real religious authority, this movement came as a response to the regime’s ongoing usage of the Druze conscripts to do their bidding in all parts of Syria. Ever since the onset of the conflict, the Assad regime has worked hard to portray this war as an alliance of the minorities against the forces of terrorism and Islamic extremism funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Therefore, the regime worked diligently to appease and coerce these groups (Druze, Alawites, Christians, etc.) to take up arms against the opposition movement which, if triumphant, will eradicate these non-Sunni groups.

 

However, with the advent of the conflict many of these groups realized that an Assad gamble would be extremely costly in the future, mainly because this so-called threat only affected the regime. More importantly, in the case of the Druze, no immediate existential threat existed — at least not from the neighboring Sunni regions.

 

It is within this context that the phenomenon of Sheikh Bal’ous should be viewed. His message was very plain and simple: the Druze will not allow anyone to use them as a sacrificial lamb and, more importantly, the Druze will only take up arms in self-defense. Concurrently, Bal’ous never directly attacked the regime or Bashar Assad, but instead sought to assure the regime that the Druze, like their Syrian compatriots, are citizens and part of Syria’s diverse and pluralistic sectarian mosaic.

 

Consequently, Bal’ous and his movement started to amass popular support, demanding that no Druze conscript serve outside the vicinity of Suweida. This was a blow to the Assad regime, as it is in dire need of manpower and has a vested interest in maintaining its image as a protector of minorities.

 

On the ground, Bal’ous was able to set up groups of armed men whose loyalty did not extend beyond the borders of Druze regions and who solely operated in a defensive capacity. Moreever, his men would provide security for the peaceful demonstrations and gatherings that took place on the streets of Suweida, reiterating Bal’ous’s main slogan: “We live with dignity above ground, or we are buried underground but with dignity.”

 

These ideas made Bal’ous an unnecessary inconvenience for the Assad regime, which for the past three years has been funding local Druze militias known as Popular Committees. While one can safely assume that Bal’ous’s rhetoric could be branded as mainstream in the Syrian Druze community, he was gradually winning people over in his bid to keep his sect neutral in the Syrian civil war.

 

It was for this reason that the regime had him assassinated. Bal’ous had already escaped one assassination attempt earlier this summer when his convoy was sprayed with gunfire. This time the assassination was a more elaborate scheme — the perpetrators used two car bombs, the first targeting his car and the second exploding right outside the hospital he and the other casualties had been transported to. Conveniently, and in just a few hours, the Syrian regime declared that they had apprehended a certain Wafed Abu Touraby.

 

Abu Touraby was shown in a recorded interrogation session fully disclosing the details of the elaborate murder he carried out, which, according to him, was commissioned by a renegade Syrian Druze officer, Marwan Hamad. And while Assad wanted everyone to believe that Bal’ous was the victim of the opposition — and thus revenge should be directed at them — the Druze were not deceived.

 

The Assad regime was clearly putting a number of options in front of the Druze, each with its own consequences and repercussions. The first and most obvious was for the Druze to attack the opposition (the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra) for killing one of their own and thereby enticing them to reenlist in the regular Syrian army. The second was for the Druze to revolt against the regime and eject it from Druze regions — the consequence of this presumably being that the Popular Committees would oppose this and drag the Druze into war. This would enable the regime to move back in and try to reestablish law and order and thus quell the sedition.

 

Thus far, none of these scenarios has occurred and the Druze reaction has been limited to the  killing of six regime soldiers and burning of a few security offices — somewhat of a muted response given the usual Druze reaction to violence.

 

So what should one expect from the Druze of Syria? While many have speculated that Bal’ous and his operational military movement were eliminated by the two car bombs, his legacy will be much harder to kill.

 

Perhaps one of the main reasons the Druze did not openly join the armed opposition to Assad is their reluctance to bank on Western anti-Assad factions, which at best can be described as unreliable and fickle. The position of Jabal al-Druze, adjacent to the Jordanian border, will make their reliance on the monarchy pivotal. Therefore, any change in Jordan’s position and that of its main backer — the United States — would have calamitous repercussions for the logical and strategic options of the Druze as a whole.

 

Given this precarious situation, the Druze need to safeguard Bal’ous’s central message: the only way to protect Druze dignity and their land is to remain neutral. Neutrality in this case does not mean sitting on the fence but rather speaking out and refusing to join Assad and his allies as they try to destroy what remains of Syria and its people.

 

The Druze as well as the rest of Syria’s so-called minorities need to keep in mind that while wars are fought on the battlefields, post-war deals are hammered out in backrooms by shrewd politicians who will ask which side of the fence they were on when the last bullet was fired.

 

Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975. He tweets @makramrabah

 

Rami Nakhla is a Syrian opposition member and World Fellow at Yale University.

The late Druze Sheikh Abu Fahed Wahid al-Bal'ous (image via social media)

Bal’ous’s rhetoric could be branded as mainstream in the Syrian Druze community, he was gradually winning people over in his bid to keep his sect neutral in the Syrian civil war. It was for this reason that the regime had him assassinated.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    So as not to disturb the harmony between the brothers within the Arab-Muslim-Druze-Sunni-Shiite-Alawi-Christian-Resistance-Steadfstaness-Palestinian-Hamas-Nasserist-MiscellaneousPalestineLiberation-Muslim Brotherhood-ISIS-SyrianFree Army-blah-blah-blah-blah..Front, can't we all maintain the facade and pretend that Bal'ous was assassinated by the Zionist enemy? We've done it so many times before, and it has always been more convenient and easy. At least, no foreign imperialist incubator of conspiracies can shame the Umma in public. Let's keep the Bal'ous murder within the family, a la Sicilian Mafia, and close the ranks (رص الصفوف). Here in Lebanon we are blaming the Zionists for the sandstorm, the garbage in the streets, the corruption, the lack of water and electricity.... As we look at our decaying world without a clue, we conclude it must be a Zionist conspiracy with a dash of Obama and a teaspoon of Europe, because our Mafia and religious bosses would not do this to us. It must be the eternal theoretical enemy south of the border.

    September 14, 2015

  • WVD

    No threat? That's I guess why Walid Jumblatt called Druze in Syria to convert to Salafism. Could we get serious please. This is ridiculous.

    September 12, 2015