Loyalist Sweida, rebel Daraa wage war in Syria

AFP , Friday 25 Jan 2013

The Syrian city of Daraa witnesses fierce fighting between regime forces and rebels, leaving at least eight people dead in two days

Smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Daraa, Syria, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Bloodstained clothes, charred facades of homes and collapsed buildings show the intensity of the fighting between the army and residents of the Druze mountain in southern Syria and the rebels of Daraa.

In Dahr al-Jabal, seven abandoned villas preside over a magnificent landscape from their perch 1,400 metres (more than 4,000 feet) above sea level.

Since mid-January, these imposing homes have served as a base for hundreds of insurgents preparing an attack on Sweida below, a city of 110,000 inhabitants.

But a snowstorm left them paralysed. Alerted by unusual movements in these summer homes, four members of the security services went to investigate, only to be slaughtered before they could return.

Two days of fighting ensued, leaving at least eight rebels dead, including their guide, Khaldun Zeineddine, a defected Druze officer with knowledge of the geography of the region, a provincial official said.

It was only the latest chapter of an undeclared war between the loyalist province and its rebel neighbour Daraa, known as the "cradle" of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad for the first mass protests of March 2011.

Daraa, between the Druze mountain and the Sunni plateau of Harun, was also the hotbed of the Syrian revolt against the French mandate of 1925-1927.

On December 19, nearly 300 rebels attacked an army post in Mjeimar, 16 kilometres (10 miles) southwest of Sweida.

Walking across this red terrain, officer Abu Raed points to a group of black basalt boulders: "This was where Mohammed Jarad, brother-in-law of (Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader) Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, met his death," he said.

"He was firing a BKC (Russian) machinegun when we killed him with 20 other terrorists" on January 14, Raed said, using the blanket term for Assad's opponents.

And there is not a week that passes in the region without incident.

Abductions of Druze officials in Daraa were rampant in May and June, prompting the inhabitants of Sweida to respond in kind, leaving behind a palpable distrust between the provinces, though Sweida hosts some 9,000 displaced people of Daraa.

"Recently, the rebels again kidnapped some 20 Druze villagers and now we are in a state of alert in 18 villages along the border with Daraa. Our men are armed and patrol day and night to prevent it from happening again," said Jihad al-Atrash at his home in Era.

The grandson of Emir Hassan al-Atrash, famous for having had nine wives during his lifetime including the renowned Druze singer Asmahan, was himself held for three hours by the hardline Islamist group, Al-Nusra Front.

In his olive-green uniform, the 56-year-old farmer emphasises the distinction between the people of Daraa "with whom we have historic relations" and the feared Al-Nusra Front against who "we are prepared to fight".

The two provinces are diametrically opposed in the current conflict. If Daraa chose rebellion, Sweida is firmly in regime hands.

"Despite the crisis in the country, we believe in the state and the law. We are against chaos and for justice. We are against extremist groups who want to violate security, said a top Druze cleric, Sheikh Hikmat Hajari.

"We support the national dialogue," presented by Assad, he said.

"These last 10 years we were able to deepen our relationship with Daraa, but unfortunately the dignitaries with whom we were in contact have lost their influence amid the recent chaos," said the sheikh at his home in Qanawat.

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