Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri called activists to continue protests against regime rule, saying he was “not surprised by what happened” and holding the ruling Baath Party responsible for any deaths or injuries to protesters.
Three people were wounded on Wednesday when bullets were fired at anti-regime protesters in Sweida in the first reported use of violence in weeks-long demonstrations in the Druze-majority province.
Open criticism of the regime has become increasingly rare in areas controlled by President Bashar Al-Assad, but the regime’s decision to lift fuel subsidies last month prompted fresh protests, concentrated mainly in Sweida.
“The [public] squares are ours and we will remain in them peacefully for a day, two days, a month, two months, a year, or two years, and we will not back down,” Al-Hijri told visitors at his residence in Qanawat just northeast of Suweida.
He described the Iran-backed militias in Syria, which make up a large segment of the Syrian regime’s military apparatus, as “occupiers of our lands”.
Syrians from Sweida have for years complained over the presence of Iranian and Iran-backed militias in their areas, blaming them for the rise in chaos and crimes.
Tehran has backed the Syrian regime for most of the conflict which started in 2011.
“Everyone who does not stand with his people, which is a sign of dignity, is a traitor to his homeland,” one of the sheik’s aides read from a statement, adding that “everyone who supports this defunct party [the Baath Party] is… outside of the religious values and principles on which we were raised”.
The spiritual leader urged members of the Sweida Provincial Council to either stay in their homes or stand with protesters, a day after the council called on regime forces to protect “state institutions.”
“You are elected and appointed by this defunct [Baath] party, not by the people. Remain silent if you are unable to speak the truth,” the statement added.
Al-Hijri stressed the commitment to peaceful protest, calling on activists to remain in the streets until their demands are met, and warning the regime against the use of force.
“Spread awareness among [Sweida’s] people regardless of their orientations and beware the strife that the regime and its aides seek,” Al-Hijri said.
Syria’s Druze community has largely tried to disassociate from the country’s 12-year war, and community leaders have heeded calls by authorities to limit and defuse protests in the past.
The most violent attack to hit Suweida during the war was in 2018, when alleged IS group militants carried out suicide bombings, and shootings in the main city and surrounding towns, killing over 250 people.
Prominent Druze leader Sheikh Wahid Al-Balous was killed in a car bomb in 2015.
Over half a million Syrians have died and millions more displaced since the conflict broke out, and most of the country’s economy and infrastructure have been left in ruins.
Source: The New Arab