SWEIDA: Syria’s southern Sweida province is seeing a rise in kidnappings and “security chaos,” igniting fears amongst residents that are unprecedented since 2011.
Figures issued by the “Suwayda 24” news page indicate that the government carried out one kidnapping every 32 hours there in 2019, with a total of 267 kidnappings and arrests for the year. Some 151 such incidents were at the hands of what the site described as “gangs and unknowns” who carry out their operations to collect “financial ransom” from the families of the kidnapped. There were also 25 cases of kidnapping by local factions, while seven cases were by factions in neighboring Daraa province.
In addition, the government arrested about 45 civilians who were subsequently released after pressure from local Sweida factions. In return, those factions arrested 39 regime personnel, the majority of whom were exchanged for detainees from Sweida, according to the annual “Suwayda 24” report.
Speaking with Mari, Rami, a local activist who asked not to reveal his full name for security reasons, said that the number of gang members in Sweida “is estimated to be in the dozens, most of them former pro-government fighters, and some of whom were against local opposition factions.”
He pointed out that “most of the activities of these gangs are concentrated in the areas of Shahba, Sakhlek, Majadel and Sweida city”.
According to Rami, many of the kidnappings occured on the Damascus-Sweida highway, “which is the only economic artery for the province, discouraging potential investors from considering business in Sweida.”
What Sweida is witnessing today is the result of events from 2014 and 2015, when popular anger escalated against mandatory military service for its youth, and against the possibility of them being taken to battle fronts in other provinces, according to one resident, Ayham.
The government offended the families of the dead by promising monetary compensation, which only increased dissent, Ayham says.
All of this pushed the people of Sweida to adhere to the principle of “neutrality” towards the events taking place elsewhere in Syria, without aligning with any party to the conflict. In return, some residents mobilized against the state’s security apparatus in an attempt to halt arrests and forced military recruitment, and proceeded to detain and kidnap government personnel.
According to Ayham, the government initially pretended to pursue a policy of “flexibility” towards popular protests in Sweida, which stood in contrast to its policy in the other provinces. Its stated aim: to “protect minorities” such as the Druze, the ethno-religious sect to which most of Sweida’s residents adhere.
But the government was far from neutral. Military intelligence, or what is known as “military security,” led by Brigadier General Wafik Nasser, assassinated Sheikh Waheed Balous, the leader of the Men of Dignity group, in September 2015. Balous was known for standing against the government, according to a source close to the Men of Dignity.
Following the killing, clashes broke out, ending with the government stopping arrests in Sweida, including against those wanted by criminal cases.
‘Security’ linked to kidnapping gangs
According to one leader of a local faction in the Al-Mazraa town in rural Sweida, there is a relationship between local kidnapping gangs and officers in the Syrian intelligence services, especially the military security apparatus. Many gang leaders were previously recruited by the security service in 2011 to suppress peaceful opposition protests, the source said.
The source, who requested anonymity, added that these people worked for several armed factions in the Sweida, such as the Al-Bustan Association and the National Defense Forces, and fought battles on several fronts in Syria, before returning to Sweida. They number between 20 and 30 people, and finance their operations through smuggling, car theft and kidnapping.
The leader added that the kidnapping groups have ties with intelligence officers, accusing an assistant in the Military Security Branch in Sweida, Maher Haider, of acting as an intermediary between the branch officers and the kidnapping gangs in Shahba, Majadil and Araqa.
Haider has been acting as mediator since Brigadier General Wafik Nasser assumed leadership of the branch, and even after Brigadier General Louay Al-Ali assumed the leadership of the Military Security Branch in Sweida, according to the source, pointing out that Haider negotiates with gang leaders such as Thaer Shalghan in Majadal, Rayan Abu Zainuddin in Arika and Alaa Al Harfoush in Shahba. He receives up to 40 percent of the income from ransoms for each person kidnapped by a gang member.
At the same time, local factions in Sweida do not have the logistical capabilities and support required to combat kidnapping and smuggling, according to the leader, as they have little real power. The local factions do not receive monthly salaries, unlike factions that are loyal to Damascus.
In addition, the leader from Al-Mazraa fears that the factions’ “interference in this file may lead the province to civil strife, given the lack of a local consensus to authorize the factions to arrest the outlaws, as well as the reactions that may be issued by the families of gang members.”
Although the responsibility for maintaining security in Sweida lies with the state and its security apparatus, Damascus may use the current chaos as an excuse for future intervention in order to control the entire province, according to the leader, citing the security settlements that the regime makes from time to time for gang members The latest such settlement was in September of last year, when the leader of the pro-Diyar faction, Nazih Jarbou, began conducting reconciliations, especially in the city of Shahba.
The role of the men of Jabal Druze
On the role of elders and sheikhs of the Druze community, a cleric with knowledge of the situation said that the “Shioukh al-Aaql” group played an important role in mitigating problems brought on by the absence of the law in Sweida. The Conflict Resolution Committee, “composed of notables and clerics, operates a tribal judicial system and has a consensus among the community,” the source said
The committee was able to settle hundreds of disputes among residents, according to the source, pointing out that they issued several official statements and distributed them to religious councils throughout the province prohibiting relations with those accused of kidnapping, robbery and drug crimes, even calling on their families to disavow them.
While the role of the National Reconciliation Committee affiliated with the government is limited to negotiations with gangs, with the aim of releasing the kidnapped, most of the negotiations are conducted in secret with individuals who do not reveal their identities, one committee member told Mari. Even if the negotiations are with people whose identities are known, the committee has only has the power to mediate, and the story ends with a financial ransom.