BEIRUT: Syrian rebels stormed a military airport in the Druze-majority province of Swaida Thursday, as tensions soared in the provincial capital in the wake of a long-simmering state of tension with the authorities.
The rebel groups, mostly under the “Southern Front” alliance of the Free Syrian Army, pounded the Thaaleh airport located a few kilometers west of the city of Swaida. They entered “wide sections” of the sprawling facility as battles raged with regime troops, according to anti-regime activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The airport is not used for aviation but it is a staging-ground for the bombardment of rebel-held parts of next-door Deraa province.
The rebels also claimed they downed a MiG with anti-aircraft fire, as multiple videos of the crash quickly circulated on social media. State news agency SANA said that the authorities were investigating the incident.
As the battles raged, the Southern Front pledged that it had no intention of attacking Swaida, which has been untouched by the war through most of the uprising. The city and surrounding province are home to thousands of displaced Syrians, from Deraa and elsewhere.
The Southern Front added that it was ready to join forces with the Druze in any clashes against ISIS, which have erupted on several occasions on the fringes of the southern province – the suspicious attacks are reportedly carried out by small groups of local Bedouin who are affiliated with the jihadi group.
But a barrage of mortar bombs targeted the city Thursday, killing a beloved theater owner, Asaad Saraya, and wounding several others, according to pro- and anti-regime activists on social media.
Anti-regime activists blamed Bedouins residing in the neighborhood of Maqwas, on the eastern outskirts of the city, for the attack.
The leader of the informal “Dignity Sheikhs” movement, Wahid Balous, issued a harsh statement in which he blamed the regime and urged the “citizen’s arrest” of the top intelligence officer in Swaida, Col. Wafiq Nasser.
“We hold the security committee for the province fully responsible for the acts of terror and launching of mortar bombs on Swaida,” the statement said.
Balous urged that all entrances to the city be monitored by his many followers and demanded the “citizen’s arrest of the head of Military Intelligence, Wafiq Nasser.”
An anti-regime source told The Daily Star that as in previous episodes of tension between Swaida residents and the authorities, a full-blown confrontation might not necessarily result.
While a senior sheikh al-aql, Hikmat Hajari, earlier this week issued a call for people to join the army with the rebels gaining momentum, Balous long ago issued a blanket rejection of anyone from Swaida fighting outside the province.
Balous’ followers have periodically threatened to attack police stations and other regime positions whenever a young man wanted for military service is detained – the men are always released before an all-out clash erupts.
Balous and anti-regime activists have repeatedly blamed the regime for seeking to stoke sectarian tension between Swaida and Deraa. Balous’ men have recently stopped two military convoys from taking heavy weaponry from Swaida to Damascus.
The latest incident prompted Lebanese pro-regime figure Nasser Qandil to accuse the Druze of “treason,” claiming that the convoy had been meant to aid in the defense of Thaaleh airport.
The source said that while he believed most people in Swaida didn’t believe that rebels in Thaaleh were responsible for the mortar bomb attack, they weren’t in a position to attack the presumed culprits.
“The Maqwas area is surrounded by regime checkpoints, and people aren’t yet ready to engage in such a direct, armed confrontation,” he said.
The Southern Front also condemned the mortar bomb attack.
Anti-regime groups in Deraa issued a series of video statements by rebel commanders and local figures from the Sunni-majority province, all urging calm and denouncing attempts at stoking tension.
“We affirm the historical brotherhood with our neighbors in Swaida and deny any intention by the FSA to target our people in the Mountain [Swaida],” said one of them, by a Southern Front commander, Mohammad Abu Bassel. “Don’t allow those who are exploiting sectarianism to divide our ranks.”
“We don’t need mediators,” said a tribal leader, Ibrahim al-Hariri. “We’ve been living together for hundreds of years.”
And an FSA spokesman, Yassin al-Hariri, pledged that if Thaaleh airport is seized by the rebels it will be turned over to Balous’ Dignity Sheikhs group.