How Assad’s Strategies Facilitated the Suweida Massacre

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 18

(Source: AFP Photo

At daybreak on July 25, Islamic State (IS) fighters launched a brutal attack against the predominantly Druze city of Suweida. The attackers went door to door, massacring helpless victims. They quickly and silently entered homes and slaughtered countless people before a single shot was fired. By the end of the assault, IS fighters murdered more than 250 people. The Assad regime publicly claims to be committed to defeating IS, but its tactics undoubtedly facilitated the IS movements that led to this tragedy and will likely facilitate more in the future.

The Assad regime had granted safe passage out of Yarmouk to the same IS fighters who later attacked Suweida. [1] A deal was struck to evacuate IS following the month-long bombardment of Yarmouk by Syrian and Russian airstrikes. Notably, regime forces declined to even enter the camp until they reached an arrangement to move IS militants out of the area. The regime commonly refuses to enter areas where IS operates until a settlement is made or local militias eradicate IS fighters in the area.

Unlike other negotiated settlements, IS fighters were not forced to disarm and were transported out of Yarmouk in comfortable buses. These buses even reportedly had air conditioning—a luxury not afforded to the tens of thousands of forced evacuees subjected to the reconciliation agreements (Haaretz, Aug. 28, 2017).

For civilians, these reconciliation agreements constitute forced displacement, such as can be seen in Zabadani and Madaya since 2015. They come after years of indiscriminate bombardment, starvation and siege (Syrian Observer, November 7, 2016). The scores of civilian evacuees packed into the regime’s notorious green buses are often given short notice of their fate and are permitted to bring only the few belongings they can carry. Meanwhile, because of the Assad regime’s acquiescence of IS, these agreements provide fighters a safe retreat. This allows IS to regroup and fight again another day.

The IS fighters evacuated from Yarmouk were taken east to the Syrian Badia desert. The area is one of the few remaining parts of the country where the group still operates. It is also an area from which the regime had just removed security forces and checkpoints. It was from this same location that IS fighters launched their attack on the city. [2]

The evacuation of IS fighters from Yarmouk is the most recent instance of acquiescence toward IS in a larger pattern of conspiracy between the Assad regime and IS in Damascus. A mutualistic relationship between IS and the Syrian regime became apparent to residents in 2016. A deal was reportedly struck by which IS would fight Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, and in exchange, would be allowed to move in and out of Yarmouk (PDC, August 2, 2018). Residents of the camp were confined, starved and bombarded daily while IS women were free to shop in the city’s commercial stores. The Assad regime helped move IS fighters through checkpoints that it set up, such as in al-Qadam. The regime even allowed IS to evacuate wounded fighters to be treated in al-Mahayni Hospital in regime-controlled central Damascus. [3]

Assad and the Druze

Facilitating the most recent IS attack on Suweida is part of a reoccurring pattern of regime assistance to IS. In 2014, IS in the eastern al-Lajat Badia area was comprised of a collection of defected fighters from both the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra. It was during this time that IS sought to extend its zone of control toward Suweida. Reports indicate that when IS swept through much of Iraq and Syria during its 2014 expansion, the Assad regime supplied the group with intelligence of the area in order to dislodge local Druze resistance (emaratalyoum, August 6, 2018). Assad even went so far as to attempt to disarm the Druze armed forces, the Sheikhs of Dignity, as IS advanced on the city.

The Druze in Suweida have a long and complicated history with the Assads. A minority group itself, the Alawite Assad regime has cast itself as a purported protector of religious minorities in Syria, like the Christians, the Ismailis and the Druze, among others. When the revolution first broke out, the Druze community primarily attempted to maintain neutrality and defend its own territories.

Internal divisions within the Druze, however, made this difficult. Some believed that the regime would help protect them, while others aimed to side with opposition groups. Another level of division has arisen between Suweida families. The majority throw their weight behind the influential Lebanese Walid Jumblatt, who comes from a centuries-long lineage of Lebanese Druze royalty, but others support the upstart Wiam Wahhab. [4] The former has sided with the Syrian opposition while the latter has encouraged Syrian Druze to form militias and fight on behalf of Assad. Historically, though, outside threats to the community have been sufficient to unite the Druze together in defense of their shared way of life.

The regime’s use of sacred Druze imagery in 2014’s corrupt, war-time presidential election sparked outrage from the minority group. Efforts to conscript young Druze men from Suweida shortly after only inflamed these tensions (Daily Star, April 9, 2014). As a small minority, conscription is seen as a threat to the very existence of Druze society. [5] Being deployed with the regime’s forces to fight in the war would mean that the Druze would not be able to defend their own society from the hostile forces that threaten it. Sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balous declared that Druze should resist forced military service in June of 2015, broadcasting online that Druze authorities “have ended mandatory conscription” (zamanalwasl, June 17, 2015). In 2015 and 2016, student-led protests against corruption and economic destitution broke out among young activists in Suweida (Syria Deeply, September 1, 2016). The unrest was met with waves of arrests, detentions and assassinations—including the 2015 assassination of Sheikh Balous.

Assad’s Strategy

The regime’s most recent maneuver, which facilitated the attack on the people of Suweida, is not merely a punitive exercise against the Druze. Rather, allowing IS to continue operating and attacking local Syrian populations serves several important functions for Assad.

The evacuation of IS from Yarmouk can be used to buttress public claims by both Moscow and Damascus that they are advancing against terrorist groups, while allowing Damascus to assist those same terrorists when it suits the regime’s purposes. During the Ghouta offensive earlier this year, Assad vowed during a press conference to “continue fighting terrorism” until all terrorist groups had been defeated, but was simultaneously peacefully evacuating IS fighters in other areas. [6]

The ploy appears to be working, as most media reports have noted IS’s continued ability to conduct large-scale attacks despite significant battlefield “defeats” and the loss of most of its territory. This does not take into account the fact that many of the group’s recent attacks have been facilitated by the Assad regime’s tactics. This strategic misdirection allows the Assad regime to continuously prosecute destructive offensives under the pretext of its war on terrorists. Assad is creating the very conditions that he and his allies claim necessitate the continuous cycle of violence.

The tactic also follows a long pattern of the regime outsourcing its military campaigns to foreign patrons and local militias. Following years of bloody civil strife, attrition within the Syrian army has reached the point where it can no longer hold positions once they are retaken (ayyamsyria, August 2, 2017). This is particularly true in the expansive Eastern Badia, where rugged geography facilitates the movement of locals accustomed to the terrain. Instead, the regime seemingly uses IS to punish once-restive or otherwise uncooperative segments of the Syrian population. Doing so means that the regime and its allies do not have to expend their remaining military and economic resources in a likely Sisyphean attempt to control sparsely populated, desert territory. Assad seemingly hopes that locals will be forced to defend their homes against IS incursions, slowly whittling down both IS forces and uncooperative civilian populations.


[1] Interview on July 27, 2018, with a former resident of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus who was displaced to northern Aleppo province in May.

[2] Interview on August 3, 2018, with a former resident of Suweida.

[3] Interview on July 27, 2018, with a former resident of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus who was displaced to northern Aleppo province in May.

[4] Interview on August 3, 2018, with a former resident of Suweida.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Assad’s comments were made during a press conference on March 4, 2018 (YouTube, March 4).