At least six regime security personnel were killed in unrest in the heartland of Syria’s Druze minority after the assassination of an anti-government cleric, a monitor said on Saturday.
Supporters of Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, who was the leader of a powerful Druze militia, blamed the regime for twin car bombings in the southwestern city of Sweida on Friday that killed him and 27 other people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Six members of regime security forces were shot dead on Friday night,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The deaths came when angry local residents, some of them armed, attacked two security branches in Sweida after news of Balous’s assassination.
The cleric was a popular figure among Syria’s Druze minority which made up around three percent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million.
The Druze, who follow a secretive offshoot of Shiite Islam, have been divided during Syria’s civil war, with some members fighting on the government side and others expressing sympathy for the opposition.
Balous was a prominent critic of President Bashar Assad, calling on youth in the Druze stronghold of Sweida province to refuse to serve in the military. He was also a critic of the Islamic State militants who have taken over a third of the country and are fuelling the civil war that has killed more than 250,000 and left more than one million wounded.
Balous led the “Sheikhs of Dignity” group, Sweida’s most powerful militia, and fought the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.
Balous, who was a strong supporter of rebels trying to topple Assad, died Friday in one of two consecutive car bomb explosions, including one near the National Hospital in Sweida city. Footage on Syrian TV showed mayhem in the aftermath of the explosion, with civilians scrambling to remove the injured from the scene as a huge cloud of black smoke billowed above.
As word of Balous’s death spread on Friday night, protesters pelted the municipality building with stones, and gunfire was heard outside two security headquarters in the city.
Residents said demonstrators also smashed a statue in the city center of Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor of President Bashar al-Assad.
Local Druze clerics later intervened with the protesters to urge them to return home.
On Saturday, calm returned to the city although residents said Internet connections remained down and an army checkpoint blocked the main road to Damascus.
In the capital, a security source insisted the demonstrations were against “terrorism” not the regime.
State media reported the car bombs but made no mention of Balous’s death.
Sweida has largely been spared the violence that the rest of Syria has experienced since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
But there has been occasional unrest, including protests backed by Balous just days before his death, in which residents demanded better government services, including power and water.
Analysts said Balous’s killing appeared intended to intimidate parts of the Druze community that have sought to hedge their bets and distance themselves from a weakened regime.
“Balous symbolized that movement of Druze wanting to be independent from the regime, but also not hostile to the opposition, wanting to decide their own fate,” said Hassan Hassan, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank.
“The regime had made it clear that this movement was not to be tolerated.”
Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert at the University of Edinburgh, said the short-term anger was a price the regime was willing to pay to undermine Balous’s movement.
“It managed to eliminate the most influential critical voice among the Druze community,” he said.
In neighboring Lebanon, which also has a sizeable Druze population, the sect’s political leader Walid Jumblatt said Balous’s death was a “painful strike” to the community.
“It is time for the honorable citizens [of Sweida] to rise up in the face of the Syrian regime that wants repression and to spread sedition,” he told the anti-government Syrian Orient TV.