Sweida bloodshed marks a turning point for Syria’s Druze community

Smoke rises after an attack in the southwestern Syrian city of Sweida. (File photo/AFP)
Updated 06 August 2018
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Sweida bloodshed marks a turning point for Syria’s Druze community

  • The execution came “after the failure of talks between Daesh and regime forces over the transfer of Daesh militants from the southwest of Daraa province to the Badiya
  • Regime forces have in recent weeks ousted Daesh from all of the towns and villages in the Yarmouk Basin in the northwest of Daraa province

BEIRUT: Daesh has executed one of dozens of Druze hostages abducted from Syria’s southern province of Sweida last week, a journalist in the area and a monitor said Sunday.
Daesh went on a rampage in Sweida on July 25, killing more than 250 people — mostly civilians — in the deadliest attack ever to target the mostly regime-held province and its Druze religious minority.
The militants also kidnapped more than 30 people, most of them women and children, from a village in the province, which had previously remained largely isolated from Syria’s seven-year civil war.
On Thursday, Daesh killed a 19-year-old male student who was among the hostages, the head of the Sweida24 news website Nour Radwan told AFP.
Quoting relatives, Radwan, who was speaking from Sweida, said the young man was taken from the village of Al-Shabki on July 25 along with his mother.
His family received two videos, the first showing him being decapitated and the second of him speaking before being killed as well as images of his body after his death, Radwan said.
Sweida24 posted online part of a second video, which was seen by AFP, showing a bearded young man who appeared to be sitting on the ground in a landscape of grey rocks.
He is wearing a black T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms, and his hands are tied behind his back. The video could not be independently verified.
Also on Sunday, sources said the head of a Syrian research facility that Western countries say was part of a chemical weapons program was killed when his car was blown up.
Aziz Asber was the director of the Syrian Scientific Research Center in Masyaf, near the city of Hama, which Western governments say was a covert Syrian regime installation.
“(Asber) died after an explosion targeted his car in the Hama countryside,” Al-Watan said in an online report.
The attack on Asber was claimed by a Syrian militant group affiliated to Tahrir Al-Sham. It includes the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which served as Al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch.
Militants have lost much of the territory they once controlled in Syria after overrunning large swathes of it in 2014, but they retain a presence in the east of the country and in the vast Badiya desert that sweeps through its south.
The regime has been fighting in recent weeks to expel Daesh fighters from a patch in the neighboring province of Daraa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the young man’s execution was the first since the kidnappings.
The execution came “after the failure of talks between Daesh and regime forces over the transfer of Daesh militants from the southwest of Daraa province to the Badiya” desert, said the Observatory.
It also follows the execution of 50 Daesh fighters and civilians in Daraa province earlier this week at the hands of rebels, according to the monitor, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
On Friday, a top Druze religious leader said Russia was in talks with the militants over the release of those abducted in Sweida.
Sweida24 said the oldest woman seized was 60.
Syria expert Khattar Abu Diab said that the events of July 25 in Sweida marked a turning point for the country’s Druze community.
“For this ancestral community, the abduction of women oversteps all red lines,” he said.
“Their reaction will depend on the outcome of negotiations but if all the hostages were killed” the Druze could directly intervene to expel Daesh from the desert, he said.
Regime forces have in recent weeks ousted Daesh from all of the towns and villages in the Yarmouk Basin in the northwest of Daraa province.
Syria’s state media have said regime troops are pursuing the last remaining militants who fled to nearby valleys.
In areas it has retaken from militants in recent years, the regime has sometimes negotiated to take back control of land in exchange for the transfer of fighters to other parts of Syria.
During the July 25 attack in Sweida, the militants abducted 36 Druze women and children from a village in Sweida’s east, the Observatory said at the time.
Four women had since escaped while two had died, leaving 14 women and 16 children in Daesh captivity, according to the Observatory.
At the time, another 17 men were unaccounted for but it was unclear if they were also kidnapped.
Local sources say the families of the abductees have been sent photos and videos of their loved ones via WhatsApp.
The Sweida killing is the first such execution of a kidnapped civilian by Daesh since the jihadists overran the town of Al-Qaryatain in central Syria for several weeks in October last year, the Observatory said.


New UN Syria envoy seeks Syria constitution talks, no firm timeframe

Updated 15 February 2019
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New UN Syria envoy seeks Syria constitution talks, no firm timeframe

  • Formation of a constitutional committee is key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria
  • Pedersen said he could not be more specific about the timeframe for a meeting of the committee

GENEVA: The new UN envoy tasked with forging peace in Syria hopes to convene a constitutional committee in Geneva “as soon as possible,” he said on Friday, without giving a firm timeframe for the latest attempt to end the country’s devastating war.
Formation of a constitutional committee is key to political reforms and new elections meant to unify Syria and end an almost eight-year-old war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced about half of Syria’s pre-war 22 million population.
Geir Pedersen, the fourth Syria mediator after Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, said he also had ideas about how to build trust and confidence between the two sides, who have previously attended nine rounds of largely fruitless talks as the war rumbled on.
“I think we have identified the challenges and we have agreed on how we should move forward and that I see as a very, very positive sign,” Pedersen told reporters.
“My hope (is) that they will be able as soon as possible to have the constitution committee to meet in Geneva.”
Syria’s opposition last year agreed to join a process of rewriting the constitution under UN auspices following a peacemaking conference in the Russian city of Sochi.
But President Bashar Assad, who is emerging triumphant in the conflict and has sworn to retake every inch of Syria still outside his control, has objected to the world body naming members of the committee.
Pedersen said he could not be more specific about the timeframe for a meeting of the committee, but he said his discussions with relevant parties were good.
Asked if he would have failed if he had not presided over an end to the war by the end of his tenure, Pedersen said the aim was to negotiate an agreement between the two parties.
“To be able to get to a situation where you can say that we have been able to put eight years of conflict behind us and that we as Syrians agree that we will begin the process of creating a future for coming Syrians, that... would be the definition that we have been successful.”
Pedersen met the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Riyadh last month, shortly after a visit to Damascus, where Assad’s forces have made large territorial gains on the battlefield, largely thanks to Russian and Iranian support.
Russia, Iran and Turkey, supporters of the main sides left in Syria’s complex war, have so far failed to agree on the make-up of the constitutional committee.
But chief opposition negotiator Nasr Haririr said on Jan. 19 after talks with Pedersen that Syria had a good opportunity to reach a political solution to its war because cease-fires have brought calm to many areas of the country.
Pedersen added that he saw the constitutional committee as “a potential door opener” for the political process.
In parallel with this, work was also needed on other issues and he hoped to discuss this in more detail with the Syrian parties, including the government and SNC, he said.
As a sign of increasing confidence, Pedersen said he hoped to see more prisoner exchanges, and clarity on missing persons, following a swap between the government and rebel forces a few days ago, where each side handed over 20 prisoners.