BEIRUT: For much of the Syrian uprising, pro-opposition activists from two neighboring provinces in the south have been confronting the danger of sectarian tension between the Sunni-majority governorate of Deraa, and the Druze-majority governorate of Swaida.
Over the last week, some 50 representatives of both provinces gathered in Jordan to discuss how to respond to challenges to sectarian coexistence, which in the past have been blamed on both hard-line Islamist groups, and the “shabbiha,” or pro-regime paramilitaries. The meeting had special relevance in the wake of the latest “kidnapping,” of three rebel Free Syria Army fighters.
In the north and the east of Syria, FSA battalions have been involved in clashes or other incidents with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a spin-off of Al-Qaeda. South of Damascus, ISIS has yet to establish a commanding presence but a similar role is played by the Nusra Front, another Al-Qaeda-inspired group.
In Deraa province, the provincial capital has been joined by a host of other places that have entered the news because they have seen battles, destruction or civilian massacres: Tafas, Nawa, Khirbet Ghazaleh, Busr al-Harir, and Busra al-Sham, to name a few.
But the small town of Mseifereh, located halfway between the towns of Deraa and Swaida, has now jumped into the spotlight.
According to multiple media reports and sources contacted by The Daily Star, the three FSA fighters ended up last month in the custody of the Shariah Committee of Mseifereh, accused of being regime agents tasked with assassinating FSA officers.
Two of the kidnapped, Khaled Rizq and Raef Nasr, are Druze from Swaida and the third, Bassel Trad, is Sunni, from the Deraa town of Ezraa.
Media adopting the line of the Shariah Committee say the three were “arrested” while opponents claim they were kidnapped, either by the Nusra Front or at its direct instigation.
In one version, the Shariah Committee’s members interviewed FSA officers and confirmed the assassination plot.
But a YouTube video of their “confessions” sparked condemnation from activists and mainstream rebel groups, who say the men were clearly coerced.
A delegations of rebel officers, sheikhs and local civilian leaders visited the Shariah Committee on two occasions, demanding evidence of the soldiers’ supposed treachery. When nothing was offered except the video, the delegation’s members condemned the detention of the three men.
During the first visit, the delegation included Lt. Fadl Zeineddine, the leader of a mainly Druze rebel battalion and the brother of the first Druze army defector, who was killed in a battle in January.
During the visit, Zeineddine and the brother of one of the captives were themselves arrested by the Shariah Committee, which provoked an even bolder response.
FSA soldiers surrounded the committee’s headquarters and briefly detained two Islamist fighters from the Nusra Front in order to secure the release of Zeineddine and the other man.
During the second visit, the Shariah Committee’s members argued that the evidence of the men’s guilt should remain secret, but said they would show it to one member of the visiting delegation. The sheikh who was appointed to see the evidence exited the committee’s headquarters and told his colleagues that the suspect video remained the only piece of evidence in the case, which was firmly rejected by the delegation.
In addition, several FSA battalions in Deraa have issued written or filmed statements attesting to the loyalty of the detained fighters whom they know, listing where they have served and fought over the last two years, mainly in the provinces of Deraa and rural Damascus.
One impassioned plea on YouTube by a Deraa-based commander strongly condemns the Shariah Committee. The commander states that he does not recognize the committee and warns against any actions taken against the captives.
He, like others commenting on the story, claims that the kidnappers, whether the Nusra Front or the Shariah Committee, had originally held the men for 27 days and demanded $20,000 for their release, before they produced the treason accusation.
A prominent social media commentator in Deraa, the “Hawran sniper,” provided the same version before the rebels’ accounts emerged publicly, and he has condemned the Nusra Front for committing several either suspect or devious acts – everything from duping a captive into carrying out a suicide car bomb attack, to working for Jordanian and Israeli intelligence.
Detailed, documented proof of the Nusra Front’s crimes has been promised, but yet to surface.
Many of the statements and videos on social media emerged last week, when around 50 figures, split almost evenly between Swaida and Deraa provinces, gathered in Amman, Jordan, for meetings on how to bolster national unity.
The already-planned meetings represented a local initiative to stop sectarian strife, said the National Coalition’s Rima Fleihan, one of the attendees who represented Swaida.
On behalf of Deraa were, among others, Walid Zoubi, a prominent businessman, and Sheikh Ahmad Sayasineh, the imam of the Omari Mosque where the uprising was touched off two-and-a-half years ago.
After a few days of meetings in the Jordanian capital, the two sides issued a statement in which they condemned the attempts by the regime and the extremists to sow strife between the two provinces.
Some activists on social media complained that the statement didn’t criticize the Nusra Front by name.
“There was nothing clearer than the language in the statement,” Fleihan told The Daily Star.
“It mentioned the [religious] extremists, and it mentioned the supporters of the regime, the shabbiha.”
Another attendee from Swaida who requested anonymity called the meetings a success and argued that for now public statements about the situation should be drafted with caution.
“The good part was that the communication was excellent between the two sides,” the participant said. “As for not mentioning the Nusra Front, the statement was designed to solve rather than create problems.”
The participant said a negative point was that the attendees from Deraa did not sufficiently represent the rebel groups active in the province, while the “official” FSA body for Swaida, the Swaida Military Council, constituted a problematic attendee.
“There is a lot of criticism of the Swaida Military Council these days” for its lack of action on the ground, the participant said, adding that the council’s representatives did attend the Amman meetings, after earlier complaining they had yet to receive an official invitation.
The case of the three captured fighters highlights the continued fragmentation in rebel ranks, and how an incident in a single town in a largely rebel-held province can create huge problems for efforts to stave off sectarian strife.
When it issued a statement of thanks for the effort to release Zeineddine and the brother of one of the captives from their brief detention, the Swaida Military Council listed several different rebel groups, and ad hoc groups of FSA fighters from several different towns, as having taken part in the effort. The Nusra Front’s actions might continue to stir up wide-scale anger, but no wide-scale, organized opposition to the Islamist hard-liners has yet to emerge.
The “confessions” by the three captured rebels
Lt. Fadl Zeineddine condemns the actions of the Shariah Committee
Lt. Col. Jihad Saadeddine, from Deraa, condemns the actions of the Shariah Committee