SWEIDA: In early February, some dozen or so men gathered in al-Qurayya. They were at the historic home of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze leader known for his involvement in the 1920s Great Arab Revolt against he French, and a revered figure–especially in Sweida, Syria’s only Druze-majority province.
At the meeting were Syrian government security officials and leaders of local Sweida factions loyal to Damascus. They were called there by Sheikh Fadlallah Nimour, head of Sweida’s Religious National Council, a pro-government movement founded in 2016 with strong relations to officials in Damascus.
Their aim: to discuss any sort of solution to the security “chaos” that has been riling Sweida for months.
Sweida province is at a crossroads amid an uptick in tit-for-tat kidnappings. Though largely quiet compared to the rest of the country, long-simmering tensions there now threaten a rise in infighting due to increased pro-government activity.
At the center of much of that pro-government activity, and in attendance at that February meeting, is Sheikh Mahran Obeid, a local pro-Damascus figure now working to gain prominence under the guise of cracking down on kidnappings and other crime.
Days after that February meeting, Obeid announced the arrest of four men wanted for kidnapping and car theft. Eight kidnapees were then released suddenly from his house. He claimed that he had freed them from captivity, but failed to reveal any more information, raising questions over just how the pro-government figure was carrying out his anti-crime campaign.
Taking advantage of ‘security chaos’
According to one local media activist in Sweida, there are growing fears among residents that Sheikh Obeid could be attempting to gain a support base among pro-regime officials by making a show of clamping down on crime.
Residents fear Obeid’s social climb could have violent repercussions, according to the activist, who requested his name not be published to protect his safety. He accused Obeida of “coordinating with the military security branches in Sweida to sow fractures within the province.”
“Obeid is trying to take advantage of the degrading security situation in earning a popular base with the help of pro-regime media,” some of whom were present at the February meeting in al-Qurayya.
He added that Obeid “does not have a real mandate from the local notables and leaders to [arrest criminals], and that at any moment the province could see infighting that could pave the way for internal security forces [to enter]without any limit, and that they could force their authority on the province, where the situation is ripe for this to occur.”
For much of Syria’s war, now entering its tenth year, Damascus has remained at some degree of distance from Sweida, preferring to maintain a sense of equilibrium there rather than violently quash opposition as it did elsewhere in the country.
But as the war has gone on, so have kidnappings and theft, spurred by political motivations as well as economic woes. Responding to accusations leveled at Sheikh Mahran Obeid, a source close to him who requested anonymity said that the Obeid’s movements were “a result of the increased kidnappings and security chaos.”
He added that there is “coordination between Sheikh Mahran and the [government’s] security apparatus in Sweida,” but denied that security forces were what directly pushed him to seek out kidnappers.
“Our movement, under the leadership of Sheikh Mahran, was bourne of our own morals, and we don’t receive orders from the security forces or any other side.”
The source clarified that cooperation with security forces is limited to “tracking suspects tied to kidnappings, or finding out the location of the kidnapees.”
According to the source, the eight kidnapees were freed through “negotiations with long-established gangs and majaadal,” the local name for the gangs spread across villages of northern Sweida.
Expulsion, and warming up to Damascus
Born in the town of Salkhad in southern Sweidah, Sheikh Mahran Obeid’s name appeared in local media soon after February’s meeting. He joined the anti-government Men of Dignity group in the war’s early years, later forming a military faction within the group called “Bayraq al-Fahd,” according to a local dignitary close to the group.
After the assassination of the group’s leader Sheikh Wahid in September 2015, his brother Sheikh Rafat assumed leadership of the movement and expelled Sheikh Mahran the following year.
The result was a schism, as members of Obeid’s Bayraq al-Fahd split into two groups. One remained within the ranks of the Men of Dignity, while the other stayed under Obeid’s leadership split from the main group.
A former military source from the Men of Dignity said that Sheikh Mahran’s expulsion from the group was a result of “accusations against him of links to military security officials,” adding that “that period saw tensions between the movement and the Syrian security apparatus, particularly military security.” The source requested anonymity for security reasons.
The source added that Sheikh Obeid “approached the military security branch and officials from the Fourth Division after his expulsion from the Men of Dignity.” In mid-2017, he “bought vehicles and military equipment and recruited new men to his faction.”
The source of his funding, however, is murky. According to the former military source, Obeid entered into a deal in August 2017 “to release 20 kidnapees from Daraa province with a person named Raed Baraka,” who leads a local faction in Sweida and had been accused of kidnappings before leaving Sweida for Europe. “The detainees had been kidnapped by him under the pretext that they had in turn kidnapped a young man close to him in Daraa.”
“Obeid released the 20 detainees in exchange for something between one and five million Syrian lira for each individual. Then he seized the kidnappers’ cars and sold them,” according to the former Men of Dignity source.
Another meeting, and Russian mediation
In response to February’s meeting in al-Qurayya, Dar Oura, the traditional political gathering house of Druze dignitaries for the Druze of Sweida, held its own discussion.
The most important families of the province attended, as well as the Sheikhs of Reason and representatives of the Bedouin tribes of Sweida, and the Deputy Bishop of Sweida, as well as local factions.
They were to announce their stance on the province’s security situation. According to local media, one attendee, Yousef al-Jarjoua al-Hanawi in Dar Oura affirmed his stance that “the state is the only side with the mandate to pursue criminals.” He warned of the possibility of infighting “if local figures assumed the authority of the state.”
“Society has a responsibility to support state agencies in application of the law.”
Neither Sheikh Obeid nor anyone from his movement attended the Dar Oura meeting.
In a similar step, the guesthouse of the Amer family, the traditional house of the Druze dignitaries in rural northern Sweida, met with a Russian delegation in early March. The meeting included the Sheiks of Reason and notable Druze figures, invited by local social leader Yahya Amer, according to local news site Sweida 24.
According to the site, Amer requested Russian attendees “find a solution to the security file.”
The Russian delegation responded by forming a small committee of local residents with the aim of looking more deeply into concerns raised at the meeting. It also reportedly requested a list of the names of gang members and their locations within the province, as well as a list of missing people.
Mari learned from local sources in northern Sweida that Amer has begun receiving requests for settling the status of those wanted in the area.
Despite the stream of recent meetings focused in Sweida’s security, tensions have not subsided on the ground. As in neighboring Daraa province, attacks appear centered on government-run security checkpoints scattered throughout the countryside.
February saw the killing of one member of the Sheikhs of Dignity group. The military security branch in Sweida was accused of carrying out the assassination, though it denied any involvement.
In response, a Sheikhs of Dignity faction attacked a military security checkpoint in Salkhad and kidnapped five government army officers.
Their fate remains unknown.