Hundreds of Syrian troops and Iran-linked forces have been deployed in Suweida in southern Syria, residents and dissidents said on Tuesday, raising fears of a crackdown on a months-long peaceful protest movement against President Bashar Al Assad in the mostly Druze province.

Many members of the sect, which is also present in Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, have turned away from the Assad regime after 13 years of civil war. The protests against Mr Al Assad began in September last year, with daily demonstrations in the central square of Suweida city, the provincial capital, and elsewhere in the area.

The province, on the border with Jordan, has bases for Iran-backed militias that Amman says are responsible, together with the Syrian Army for aiding drug smuggling into the Arabian Peninsula. Suweida also has a concentration of troops from Russia, an Assad ally, armed Druze militias and a balance of forces that make it difficult for the regime to put down civil disobedience.

Praetorian Republican Guards, members of the air force intelligence and military intelligence began arriving in Suweida and at the Khalkhala airbase north of the city on April 21, residents and dissidents in the area said.

About 500 more Republican Guards arrived four days later, along with 10 tanks and military vehicles, followed by 250 members of air force intelligence and 100 members of military intelligence from Damascus.

According to Etana, a Syrian research and policy centre based in Amman, the initial deployment of forces included members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its overseas operations arm, the Quds Force.

There was no comment on the deployments from Damascus or Tehran, which said it does not have troops in Syria.

Suhail Theiban, a veteran dissident and a leader of the Suweida protest movement, said he feared that the Syrian and Iran-linked forces, working together through agents, could instigate incidents to provide an “excuse” to deploy troops in the streets on the pretext of maintaining order.

“This regime has the capability to do anything. Suweida is too important for it to lose,” Mr Theiban told The National.

“Through Suweida, it has flooded the whole region with Captagon.”

The second round of deployments came after the Druze Obeid clan abducted three Syrian soldiers in Suweida in response to the arrest of one of its members, a university student named Dani, in Latakia governorate.

A de facto prisoner exchange ensued and all four men are now free.

Similar incidents that occurred in Suweida over the past decade also ended with the release of abductees by both sides, illustrating the balance of force that has maintained a prolonged stalemate between Druze clans and the regime throughout the civil war.

But the latest move sparked alarm from Sheikh Hikmat Al Hajri, widely considered the most senior Syrian cleric among the Druze, followers of an offshoot of Islam.

Sheikh Al Hajri called for the Druze to remain peaceful.

“Our freemen and freewomen are peaceful patriots. When necessary they can defend peace and dignity,” he said.

He warned “any party” against “any escalation or any sabotage”, describing any such move as “folly”.

Mr Hajri is part of a triumvirate that comprises the religious leadership of Syria’s Druze, all of whom have supported the current protests to various degrees.

Syria’s Druze, who number about 700,000 and live mostly in Suweida and south of Damascus, had previously largely stayed neutral after the revolt against Mr Al Assad’s two-decade rule.

Rayyan Maarouf, a member of the Suwayda24 network of citizen journalists, said the Assad regime and its Iranian backers might have felt emboldened to crush the Suweida protests now that the regional focus was on the war in Gaza and preventing more direct hostilities between Iran and Israel.

“The regime may have realised that by ignoring the protest movement in Suweida, it has not gone away,” he said. “Its mentality may be changing.”

He said the reinforcements might not be enough for a total crackdown but “could open the door for widespread violence”.

According to Etana, the “unusual” movement of forces into Suweida suggested that the regime “may be planning for a violent crackdown”.

“Also concerning is that the IRGC and Quds Force elements have also been sent as part of the deployments,” Etana said on X.

Source » thenationalnews