Violence grips Syria's Druze heartland after killing of protester by security forces

Prominent figure in protest movement says non-violence must remain at its core

A demonstration against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, in the mostly Druze southern city of Suweida. AFP
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Druze gunmen attacked security installations in Syria's southern governorate of Suweida on Thursday, members of the opposition to President Bashar Al Assad said, after regime forces shot dead a pro-democracy demonstrator earlier this week.

The assailants, belonging to several militia opposed to the president, exchanged fire with loyalist forces at intelligence branches, police stations and ruling Baath Party compounds.

"Some buildings were hit with rocket propelled grenades. There was damage but no casualties," one of the sources said.

The mostly Druze province has been an anomaly throughout the 13-year Syrian civil war. Many residents armed themselves at the onset of the conflict, but stayed on the sidelines and mostly refused to serve in the military while also not actively attacking the state.

A balance of power between pro-Assad and anti-regime forces contributed to the regime refraining from using deadly force to quell demonstrations in Suweida, which renewed in August last year, after the economy deteriorated.

However, Jawad Al Barouki , a protester, was shot dead on Wednesday in front of a security building in the province's eponymous capital.

Al Barouki was among a group of protesters in front of the building when security personnel fired at them to disperse the demonstration, according to Suwayda24, a network of citizen journalists. A video on the Suwayda24 X account shows the protesters chanting, “down with Bashar Al Assad” before the sound of gunshots.

After the killing, demonstrators reportedly cut off some roads in Suweida and nearby areas, while pro-Assad gunmen in pick-trucks drove in the city, firing guns in the air.

Suhail Thubian, an influential figure in the six-month-long protest movement, cautioned that peaceful disobedience should be adhered to.

"Violence will ruin everything," he told The National by phone form Suweida.

Mr Thubian had spent six years in prison under Hafez Al Assad's presidency in the 1980s and 1990s for being a Communist opponent of his rule.

"The non-violent course must continue," he said after attending the funeral of Barouki in Suweida city.

Video footage taken by Suwayda24 showed mourners shouting "Bashar is murderer". The funeral was held at a large hall, and attended by Sheikh Hammoud Al Hinnawi, a senior member of the religious leadership of Syria's Druze.

In 2010, the year before the Syrian revolt broke out, the Druze population made up 3 per cent of Syria's 22 million people. The minority sect is concentrated in Suweida and in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. It is among the most educated social groups in Syria, as well as one of the most secular.

The 2011 protests turned into armed conflict within a year, after security forces suppressed the protest movement in a crackdown that killed thousands of civilians.

The Druze are also a transnational minority, with a presence in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, where they comprise a small but significant component of the military.

Mr Thubian said that after the funeral of Barouki, mourners marched to the the main square of Suweida, the centre of the six-month protests, to continue civil disobedience.

Updated: March 01, 2024, 8:22 AM