BEIRUT, Lebanon — An unusual wave of unrest mounted Saturday in a normally quiet southern Syrian province, according to residents and activists there, after a double car-bombing killed a prominent Druse cleric who had challenged the government by supporting young men who refused to serve in the national army.
Angry residents staged demonstrations and attacked security offices, activists said, and by Saturday afternoon the security forces had withdrawn from the city of Sweida leaving only pro-government militias recruited locally, mostly from the minority Druse sect that predominates in the area.
Six members of the security forces were killed in the clashes, according to an antigovernment monitoring group.
Syria’s state news media noted the explosions, blaming “terrorists,” but did not mention the cleric’s death and denied that any members of the security forces had been killed. Sweida’s police chief said the city was calm.
The unrest began Friday after the cleric, Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, was killed along with at least 27 others in the twin bombings, activists said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the bombings, but some residents blamed the government.
The unusual events underscored the strains growing even in areas that have traditionally supported President Bashar al-Assad or tried to remain neutral during the primarily Sunni insurgency against him.
Those tensions have ballooned even as Mr. Assad portrays himself as a protector of minorities like the Druse, and the events in Sweida came after a week of sit-ins and demonstrations to protest the worsening conditions in a number of government-held areas.
One explosion struck Sheikh Balous’s convoy and another hit the hospital where victims were taken, killing some relatives who had gone to check on them, according to residents and activists. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that monitors the conflict with the help of a network of contacts in Syria, 28 people died in the bombings and nine were killed in the clashes, including the six security personnel.
“We are between two fires, the regime and Daesh,” said Abu Tayem, an antigovernment Druse activist in Sweida, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, whose militants have slaughtered minorities in areas they take over.
Druse sheikhs and community figures have tried during the years of the Syrian crisis to stay neutral. Local opponents of Mr. Assad like Sheikh Balous have kept themselves separate from the main Sunni opposition in Syria, even from relatively moderate branches that oppose ISIS.
But there is a growing movement in the Druse community against sending sons to serve in the regular army, insisting that they should serve only locally, to defend Sweida in the National Defense Forces, a pro-government militia.
Sheikh Balous was at the forefront of that movement and of other local protests against the government over services and elections. He led a group called the Sheikhs of Dignity.
He was a much-admired cleric, and wore the thick, drooping mustache, white skullcap and baggy trousers traditional among Druse clerics and elders.
He and several other sheikhs started the Sheikhs of Dignity last year, rejecting the re-election of Mr. Assad. They called it a “void election,” and their supporters attacked one of the president’s election campaign headquarters in Sweida. Sheikh Balous was arrested but freed after community protests.
The presidential election in July 2014 was conducted without the participation of rebel-held territories, with two weak and relatively unknown candidates opposing Mr. Assad.
Sheikh Balous’s group gathered more supporters after calling for the protection of army defectors and draft evaders. Later it took up other popular causes, like the lack of adequate electricity and water.
But Sheikh Balous also made enemies, criticizing security commanders and other rival figures.
“Anyone can be behind the assassination,” said Samira, an activist from Sweida who uses a nom de guerre for safety and was reached via social media. “For one, Al-Balous’s main rival in Sweida, the commander of the military security branch in the city, might be behind this. Any of the regime thugs in Sweida might have done it.”
Last week, protests led by a group under the banner “You’re Suffocating Us” roiled the city as people demanded better services and an end to corruption.
Though the organizers behind the demonstrations were not publicly linked to Sheikh Balous, many activists said the explosions were an attempt to terrorize the protesters who were preparing for another demonstration on Friday.
The government said the bombings were the work of “terrorists” who were “tampering with our national fabric,” according to the Syrian state news agency, SANA.
Four years of war have weakened the Syrian government and affected its ability to provide essential services, and many protests were reported from different cities in Syria raising the same demands.
On Friday night, government forces blocked roads to Sweida, cutting it off from Jaramana, a mostly Druse suburb of Damascus, in what appeared to be an effort to stop the protests from spreading, residents said.
Protesters also attacked a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father and predecessor, according to the Syrian Observatory.
The Druse sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam and its adherents make up about 5 percent of Syrians. There is also a significant population in neighboring Lebanon and in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon’s Druse leader and a longtime opponent of Mr. Assad, blamed the government for Sheikh Balous’s death and called on Druse in Sweida to rise up against the government.
“It is time for the honorable citizens to rise up in the face of the Syrian regime that wants repression and to spread sedition,” Mr. Jumblatt told Orient TV, a Syrian opposition channel.
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(via NY Times)