white on transparent (1)

Karpatské Námestie 10A, Bratislava, Slovakia 


What Perceptions Do Iranians Hold Towards Syrian Druze?

2024-05-24 08:34

Issam Khoury

#DruzeCommunity , #MiddleEastTensions , #SyriaConflict , #Suwayda , #IranianMilitias , #SecurityRisks , #CivilUnrest,

What Perceptions Do Iranians Hold Towards Syrian Druze?

"Rising tensions in Suwayda as Iranian-backed militias deploy, escalating security risks and local unrest."

Fighters affiliated with the Fatemiyoun Brigade[1] and Zainabiyoun Brigade[2], supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, appeared near Khalkhala Airport in the Suwayda[3] Governorate. This presence raised questions among field observers, especially since the Syrian regime had not previously allowed non-Syrian armed groups into military sites in Suwayda, except for Hezbollah fighters.


Field activists in Suwayda could not accurately count the number of Afghan and Pakistani fighters comprising the majority of these brigades. However, it is known that since the end of April 2024, the Syrian regime has significantly increased its forces in military and security positions in Suwayda. Over a week, more than 100 buses carrying soldiers, each accommodating 36 individuals, as well as around 50 vehicles with DShK machine guns, each carrying five members, were deployed. This brings the total number of fighters, Syrian and Palestinian, mainly from the Republican Guard and the Quds Brigade, to approximately 4,000.


Additionally, over 40 vehicles joined from the south of Damascus Airport, likely including fighters from the Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun Brigades tasked with protecting Shia shrines in the Sayyida Zainab area, estimating their numbers between 600-700 fighters.


Khalkhala Airport in Suwayda witnessed intense aerial activity involving the transport of military equipment and soldiers. This suggests that the number of new fighters, including Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis, may be close to 5,000, a relatively large figure for a stable province known for its military neutrality during the civil war.



However, this increase in fighters reflects escalating tensions following the capture of three Syrian security officers by Suwayda residents. They were detained as hostages to demand the release of a Suwayda student who had been arrested and abused in Latakia province for expressing critical views of the Syrian regime on Facebook.


After the student's release and return to Suwayda, the three officers were also freed. Yet, the Syrian state's authority was challenged, prompting Syrian security to intensify its presence in Suwayda as a first step. Subsequently, semi-official media outlets supporting the regime spread rumors threatening to eliminate opposition figures in Suwayda, accusing them of collaborating with Israel and the United States, particularly targeting the Druze community leader, Hakmat al-Hajri.


These threats alarmed Suwayda residents, predominantly Druze, who felt that their entire community was at risk of elimination. This fear stems from the fact that Twelver Shia in Iran does not view the Druze as an authentic Shia group but rather as a deviant faction. The Iranian government, through its cultural centers and religious figures in Syria, has attempted to promote Shia beliefs among impoverished Druze, aiming to recruit them. However, Druze leaders have thwarted these efforts, causing Iranians to perceive this region as resistant to their Shia propagation initiatives.



Probability of War in Suwayda



The province of Suwayda is characterized by its complex terrain, making the military subjugation of this province by the Syrian regime's army a highly costly endeavor, if not impossible. Hence, the decision by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to involve Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades alongside units from the regime's army in Suwayda is due to the combat experience of these fighters in mountain warfare. The first batch of them has been transferred to Khalkhala Airport, with their numbers expected to increase if the official decision to militarily control Suwayda is made. This was evidenced by the relocation at the beginning of May of some Zainabiyoun brigade fighters stationed in the desert south of the capital, Damascus, in preparation for their redeployment in the battles of Suwayda if the Syrian and Iranian regimes decide to execute them.



The fighters of the Zainabiyoun and Fatemiyoun brigades are known for their fierceness in battles and adherence to their leadership's decisions. Their interaction with Syrians is very limited due to their poor command of the Arabic language. Therefore, they are unlikely to sympathize with the Druze civilians if they were to attack Druze-majority cities. Moreover, bribing them, as commonly done with Syrian army officers, would prove difficult.



Hence, we anticipate the Syrian regime's strategy in Suwayda battles to unfold as follows:


  • Deployment of checkpoints 

Increasing the number of Syrian army fighters in Suwayda aims to enhance the security situation for military units and security headquarters scattered throughout the province. It is expected that these security and military headquarters will be surrounded gradually by a series of military checkpoints, gradually expanding to approach major cities.


  • Urban battles 

The Syrian regime is unlikely to engage directly with civilians protesting in city squares and towns. Instead, it may resort to assassinating some activists to intimidate others from participating in protests. If Suwayda residents continue to protest in squares, the regime might move to arrest some protesters. If Suwayda residents decide to detain officers to release detainees, it would be challenging due to the extensive security and military checkpoints protecting key officers' headquarters, potentially leading to armed clashes within cities and on the outskirts of security checkpoints. The military advantage would undoubtedly lie with the better-equipped Syrian regime, prompting armed activists from the Druze community to hide in the mountains and initiate guerrilla warfare against the Syrian regime to drive it out of Suwayda cities.


  • Mountain battles

 The Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun brigades will be tasked with managing mountain battles, which are expected to result in significant human losses among Druze youth, as well as Pakistani and Afghan attackers. This might prompt Druze elders to seek negotiations with the Syrian regime, aligning with Bashar al-Assad's security apparatus goals.



Therefore, opposition activists in Suwayda must devise a defensive strategy to prevent the regime from escalating to urban battles. It is imperative to hinder the spread of military checkpoints around security and military headquarters. One effective method could be for civilians to protest directly in front of these security headquarters and demand their return to Damascus. Among the peaceful mechanisms that protesters could employ to pressure the Syrian regime to leave Suwayda is blocking the supply of food to its security and military headquarters. Suwayda residents also have easy access to monitoring any armed attacks by the Syrian regime or its supporting Shia militias and reporting them to the media, which could expose the Syrian regime's claims of protecting religious minorities in Syria.



Furthermore, it is essential for opposition forces competing against the Syrian regime to support the peaceful movement in Suwayda through all available channels. This support can help garner international and regional backing for the peaceful civilians in this province. Suwayda has revived the spirit of peaceful revolution within the Syrian uprising and steered away from the international community's fears of the potential alternative posed by political Islam discourse should Bashar al-Assad's regime fall.




The Evolution of the Situation in Suwayda Governorate


Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Syrian regime has sought to win over Syrian minorities by associating the label of terrorism with Sunni Muslim opposition members, accusing them of allegiance to radical extremist movements. The regime released many radical extremists and assisted them in establishing extremist militias that carried out terrorist acts against minorities.


At the onset of the protests, a significant portion of the Syrian Druze community in Suwayda Governorate supported the Syrian regime. The regime relied on Druze officers in its military and security operations, such as Brigadier Issam Zahreddine, who focused his military activities in Deir ez-Zor Province. Meanwhile, Brigadier Nazeih Hassoun, a close friend of the Syrian President, oversaw operations on the Syrian coast and monitored Syrian activists in Lebanon. The purpose of employing these Druze officers in the army was to encourage Suwayda's residents to engage in armed conflict. However, under pressure from Druze religious leaders and human rights activists opposed to the Syrian regime, there was a pushback against sending Suwayda's youth to the Syrian army.


A clear religious opposition emerged against the systematic killings perpetrated by the Syrian regime against its opponents. Sheikh Wahid al-Balous led a religious movement with an armed branch called the "Dignity Movement" against the Syrian regime. This posed a serious threat to the regime, fearing the movement could become a recurring phenomenon among various religious minorities. Consequently, Sheikh Wahid al-Balous was assassinated by a car bomb in September 2015 in Suwayda City, with the Syrian regime at that time accusing Jabhat al-Nusra of carrying out the operation, although the group did not claim responsibility.


By mid-2023, due to severe financial constraints in Syria, the devaluation of the Syrian currency, lack of job opportunities, and the spread of drug trafficking in Suwayda Governorate, protests and demonstrations demanding the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted unanimously on December 18, 2015, calling for a ceasefire and a political settlement in Syria, escalated. The Syrian regime's disregard for these demands led to popular demands in Suwayda in 2024 shifting towards the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, with some protesters even calling for his execution.


Druze religious leaders supported the societal movement, asserting the legitimacy of the protesters' demands, advocating for peaceful solutions, and warning that they were prepared to confront any regime escalation. They emphasized their integral part in Syrian society and clarified that their current revolution was not religious but rather a moral uprising against a corrupt regime that had become subservient to Iranians.


The blending of religious discourse with political opposition among Suwayda's residents fostered a sense of solidarity among Druze communities worldwide, strengthening the resolve of protesters in Suwayda Governorate. Consequently, the Syrian regime found itself in a dilemma, torn between suppressing the protests in Suwayda with an iron fist and fearing the repercussions of Bashar al-Assad's rule, especially considering that Druze in Israel sympathized with their relatives in Suwayda. If a conflict were to arise between Shia militias and the Druze, they would be doctrinally obliged to support their relatives in Suwayda, a situation Israel wouldn’t struggle to prevent, potentially leading to new power dynamics that could end Bashar al-Assad's rule.


[1] The Fatemiyoun Brigade is a Shiite militia formed in Syria by Afghan Shiite fighters financed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, with an estimated strength of around 14,000 fighters.

Liwa Fatemiyoun, literally "Fatimid Banner", also known as Fatemiyoun Division or Fatemiyoun Brigade.

[2] Zainabiyoun Brigade "Liwa Zainebiyoun": A Shiite militia predominantly composed of Pakistani fighters, originating from the Hazara Shiites, as well as the Shiites of Parachinar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Their estimated number of fighters in Syria is around 11,000.

Liwa Zainebiyoun, also known as the Zainebiyoun Brigade or Zainebiyoun Division

[3] As-Suwayda, also spelled Sweida.

Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet