Previously in coverage of events in the Mt. Hermon (Jabal al-Sheikh) area, I interviewed the leader of the Hermon Regiment affiliated with the military intelligence. I had noted that within the wider context of the government's attempts to retake Beit Jann and the remaining rebel strongholds of southwest Damascus countryside, rebel forces led by the jihadist group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham had launched an attack on Syrian government-held positions in the Hadr area in Quneitra.
Hadr is located in the northern Quneitra countryside, opposite Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Hadr's inhabitants are Druze. Over the course of the civil war, the locality has been subjected to rebel attacks multiple times. Among the reasons for these attacks has been an attempt by rebel forces to reach and connect with the localities under their control in the Mt. Hermon area of Damascus countryside (e.g. Beit Jann). However, all these attempts have failed.
To discuss the situation of the locality of Hadr further, I interviewed Ali al-'Awar, a media activist originally from Hadr who is supportive of the government.
Unsurprisingly, the debate over the role of Israel in the recent events features prominently in the discussion. My own assessment of the Israeli role is outlined in a detailed study I wrote in the summer on Israel's relations with the rebels. Simply put, the Israeli policy amounts to one of conflict calibration. The fight between the government and rebels ideally continues with most of Quneitra remaining under rebel control to prevent the government from asserting control and prevent Iran and allied militias from establishing a front to harass/attack Israel along the Golan. This goal of preserving rebel control in Quneitra can in part be seen as tantamount to a 'buffer zone.' At the same time, Israel does not seek regime change in Damascus. Taking into account Druze sentiment in the Galilee and Golan, Israeli officials have also affirmed that Hadr should not be allowed to fall to the rebels.
Thus, the Israelis have provided support to some rebels, with one openly admitted case so far being that of Fursan al-Jowlan, an independent group that is the largest faction in the Quneitra border locality of Jubatha al-Khashab. In addition, medical treatment has been provided for many rebel fighters, some of whom have likely belonged to the ranks of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and its predecessors. When rebel forces launch campaigns attacking government-held positions in Quneitra, Israel officially holds the government responsible for any crossfire spillover into the Golan, but likely conducts the limited strikes in order to put pressure on the government and its allies.
A view of Hadr in 2016 (photo my own)
Below is the transcript of the interview with Ali al-'Awar. A glossary for explanatory terms is provided at the end. The interview was conducted on 13 November 2017.
Q: Brother, firstly can you tell me a little about Hadr al-Sumud? The number of inhabitants, the main families in the town etc.
A: Hadr is a locality [/municipality] situated in the northern countryside of Quneitra province in the liberated part of the Golan. It is located in the north-western triangle, surrounded to the north by the Jabal al-Sheikh observatory occupied by Israel. And from the west are the villages of the occupied Golan, among them Majdal Shams. From the south, Hadr is surrounded by the locality of Jubatha al-Khashab and it is a site of the terrorist Jabhat al-Nusra [Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham]. From the east it is surrounded by Telal al-Humr and lands that also belong to Mazra'at Beit Jann and it is also a base for the terrorist Jabhat al-Nusra. The number of inhabitants is 13,000 and the number of martyrs in the crisis [civil war] is 135 martyrs, while the number of wounded from the beginning of the crisis until now amounts to more than 800 wounded.
There are also 3, 4 or perhaps 5 who have gone missing, their fate still unknown: civilians or military personnel.
I do not like to speak in terms of families because the field and war situation and the like do not permit us to speak in terms of families...what you can say is that there is one family of the Muslim monotheist [al-muwahhideen] sect: the Druze.
The economic situation for the locality depends on agriculture as a general pillar, with the locality renowned in this regard for apples, olives, grapes and berries, but after the crisis, 80-85% of its fields went out of service because of the occupation of a portion of them specifically to the south in al-Hamriya and Karum al-Hamriya and Tallat al-Hamriya. And from the east all the lands fell under fire as the insurgents seized Talul al-Humr and an area also to the south and to the west, after the terrorists seized al-Hamriya and Karum al-Hamriya and they established a presence near the ceasefire line, that is with Israeli protection, and in the protection of Jubatha [al-Khashab], which is considered the base for attacks and a point of contact between Israel and the terrorist, or the terrorists or personnel specifically belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, classified globally as a terrorist front.
Q: There are internally displaced people from the other Druze villages in Hadr right? From Mughir al-Mir.
A: No. One family or two, they are not counted. Most of them are in the Damascus countryside.
Q: What is the aim of the terrorists when they attack the Hadr area? I saw they attacked the locality numerous times. They say they are trying to reach Beit Jann.
A: Important question. Now, the project the armed terrorist groups have been adhering to since 2012 and the beginning of 2013 is the establishment of a buffer zone alongside the occupation line with the occupied Golan. This project has succeeded with them from the south of Quneitra from Wadi Ta'im south of the village of Saida and they have expanded and seized many areas, reaching Jubatha al-Khashab. All this area is under their control from the south to the north at a length of 58km and a width on the borders from 10-30km approximately under their control. Thus all the borders are under their control, with 12km remaining in front of them. This distance equates to the village of Hadr. This is what has remained for them in the north of Quneitra in order for the buffer zone project to be completed and through it there can be a connection between the terrorists of Quneitra and the terrorists of the Damascus countryside in Jabal al-Sheikh represented by Beit Jann, Mazra'at Beit Jann and the village of Mughir al-Mir that was occupied in 2013. This project cannot succeed without seizing the village of Hadr or at least subduing it or making it neutral. So there have been a number of attempts to do so: in the spring of 2013, specifically 21 March on Mother's Day, there was the first attack with the seizing of Talul al-Humr and they expanded and linked up with the areas there and with Jubatha, for Hadr to be shut off for a period of 8 hours only. But the Syrian Arab Army and heroes of Hadr and the auxiliary forces managed to rout them. This was the first attempt in 2013. In 2015, they returned again and seized three of the Talul al-Humr and tried to link up between the terrorists of Jubatha and Beit Jann: of course Talul al-Humr are east of Hadr and are approximately affiliated with the lands of Hadr. So the terrorists of Beit Jann came there and seized them with clear Israeli support that we mentioned at the time. And there remained a number of saraya [type of military point/post] and points and a battalion centre to the south of them [so] strategically Talul al-Humr were in the terrorists' hands. They tried to connect with Jubatha al-Khashab but they failed. In 2016 they returned again as well...and seven martyrs from Hadr fell as well as eight from the Syrian Arab Army and two of their brothers from Harfa and the project in 2016 failed.
Therefore three attempts. The fourth attempt was this one [recently] but it differed from the preceding ones because they came from the west and did not come from the east: that is, through the Israeli enemy, from the west and the north, the Jabal al-Sheikh observatory and the occupied lands, and it [the battle] continued and you know and followed the news. The battles continued from 5 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. when the insurgents realized that they did not achieve the aim in its entirety so they sent an explosive-rigged car among the homes of civilians aiming to stir up panic and for the people to flee ad for their project to success and so they could enter., but our heroes and the heroes of the army were able to contain and hold it off, and there was the counter-attack to liberate all the points they seized to the north and west.
In sum, during the years of the crisis, the village of Hadr, as well as its sisters Harfa and Khan Arnabeh, have managed to thwart this project for the safe zone and connection of the terrorists between Damascus countryside and Quneitra, but in the recent battle Hadr was alone in the confrontation because of the intervention of the Israeli enemy in direct form and the intense attack on this locality without any other battles, as the insurgents had accustomed us to their opening up multiple fronts to cover the main front they were using, but this time there was one very violent front, and we offered 17 martyrs from the locality who were martyred during the battles, along with six members of the Syrian Arab Army, and martyrs from the heroes of nobility who came from the provinces, among them al-Suwayda'. And we managed to thwart this project.
Here I would like to note that the terrorists in Quneitra and the Damascus countryside [also] aim to reach further and expand in order to approach the capital Damascus and so that the gates may be open for them to attack at will. Second, they aim to secure the interior and protection for Israel, for when the insurgent who is at the disposition of the Israeli is in an area neighbouring the ceasefire line, [the Israeli] offers him all services and provides him with any cover for the attack.
In the future this project may now be delayed slightly by virtue of the great losses that have befallen the terrorists for whom Israel has offered all types of support: from air and photography, and from the land, missile and artillery fire, and sometimes mortar fire and logistical support, as well as transporting wounded and offering aid and food and other things besides those. Thus also the media support that was being broadcast by two Israeli channels, among them Channel 10 that was playing both sides. In short, I don't believe the coming battle will be with the intensity of this battle because the terrorists were inflicted with a great defeat despite the mobilizations that they brought forth for it material-wise and in media terms, as well as the Israeli support and the mobilizations of fighters that came to them from Deraa and elsewhere. I believe that the coming battle is not far but it will not be with the same grant upon which was based this operation of aggression on their part under the name of breaking the siege. I believe it will take another [name] from it but the heroes of the army and heroes of Hadr and their brothers from the villages there, whether Harfa or in Quneitra in al-Ba'ath City and Khan Arnabeh and Jabba, I believe they are well aware of this project and they can thwart it perhaps before it begins.
Q: A military spokesman for the Zionist entity issued a statement days ago that the Zionist entity will work to prevent the fall of Hadr into the hands of the terrorists. In your opinion why are they saying this now? It is said that they issued this statement in view of the anger of the monotheist [Druze] brothers in the occupied Syrian Golan.
A: They did not issue this statement as an absolute, but rather the spokesman for the Israeli occupation army spoke these words following the mass anger inside the occupied land among the 1948 Arabs in the Galilee and others besides them from the villages and in the occupied Syrian Golan after our media managed to expose the Israeli intervention in open form and offer documents, photos and testimonies about this Israeli intervention. Our people in the occupied Golan and our people in the Palestinian Galilee from the 1948 Arabs came forth and arrived and marched to an area near occupied Majdal Shams and as it seems there was a great mobilization in other areas. I can say that a great number of our people inside or in the homeland came forth to support the locality of Hadr while holding the Israeli enemy completely responsible for this attack and this penetration from the northern and western side, which proves the involvement of the Israeli enemy in direct form in the attack on Hadr.
This Israeli statement came to reduce the popular pressure and hatred towards Israel, thus there was this statement of theirs. At the same time, [they made this statement] in accordance with the terrorists' project and in order for the opposition to be depicted as though they have not been supported by Israel and that they [Israel] remained neutral and left the opposition, loyalists and people of the land to fight each other and that they [not only] remained neutral, but were [also] observed to be intervening to protect this village. I believe that this statement is passive and filled [with cynicism], and its aim is to reduce the fury of public opinion inside the occupier and at the same time to put leverage in the hands of the terrorists in the event that they fail so that they can say that Israel stood with them [i.e. Hadr?] or made it seem as though it would stand with them. But all- public opinion, Arab and even local media inside the occupier- have revealed this game and completely established the open Israeli involvement in supporting the insurgents and offering complete logistical and military support as well as what concerns treatment of wounded and first aid for them.
Q: Who are the main auxiliary forces that participated in the defence of Hadr al-Sumud with the Syrian Arab Army? I ask because there is talk in particular of the entry of contingents from the Rijal al-Karama movement from Suwayda' to help the army in defending Hadr.
A: The auxiliary forces are the National Defence Forces and the Ba'ath Battalions in the locality. These are the auxiliary forces. And we have a group of guardians of the land, honour and dignity from the sons of the locality: the group of mashaykh [sheikhs], with all respect [for them]. When the attack on Hadr began, reinforcements arrived. In the afternoon approximately the battle was almost resolved by our heroes and this is not to belittle those who came to support us and stand by us, with all due respect to them, such that a martyr fell from the heroes of Suwayda'. When the reinforcement group came, it did not come under any names, whether Rijal al-Karama or the men of the National Defence [Forces]. A reinforcement group came to ward off the affliction from their people and to support their people in Hadr. As for under these names, no information came to me and those I met from those who came from the reinforcement group did not mention that they were affiliated with any faction or a specific faction.
I would also like to add that there were all these factions that fought, these names that I mentioned to you: the National Defence, the Ba'ath Battalions or the Self-Defence units or also Jaysh al-Tawheed: they are all of them from the sons of the locality of Hadr under these names. All of them are from the sons of the locality of Hadr. I would like to draw attention to this point. I tell you again that the forces or all who came from outside the locality for support that does not fail, from the Damascus countryside, from Sahnaya, Ashrafiyat Sahnaya, Jaramana, and from Suwayda' or the villages of Jabal al-Sheikh. They came to support the locality of Hadr, not under any name at all, but rather in the name of pride and nobility. And this point I would like to illuminate. And there is no revisionism on the role of the Syrian Arab Army and its offering of martyrs alongside our heroes in confronting and burying this Zionist project.
Q: The Zionist entity has claimed that the Islamic Resistance- Hezbollah- has been building a popular resistance movement in Hadr to fight the occupation army in the Golan, and this is the claimed reason behind the entity's project to establish a buffer zone in Quneitra. What is your opinion on the talk regarding this matter?
A: My opinion is that Israel found- over the length of the ceasefire line from Saida and Wadi Ta'im in the south up to Jubatha al-Khashab, this long distance exceeding as I mentioned 58km- a new Lahad army to carry out its orders. And it [Israel] could not recruit the locality of Hadr for its project, so it's natural that it should fabricate any pretext to recruit Hadr, render it subservient, keep it neutral or target it with any justification it wants to see. Therefore, it's a natural thing that it says that the locality of Hadr is a base for attacks on it by Hezbollah and that Hadr harbours terrorist organizations: call it as you wish, so the Israeli calls it as he wishes, but on the ground of reality in the locality of Hadr, there is no faction at all fighting under the name of Hezbollah.
There are inhabitants of the village clinging to their land and remaining on it and also mostly supportive of their government, state and army, and they will not abandon this soil. They are defending their land and not aggressing against anyone. We have an example our ancestors said: we do not attack anyone, but rather we ward off aggression from us. This is Hadr. And it is natural that the insurgent should find a pretext to attack us in the name of breaking the siege, an Israel on the claim that there are so-called militias or forces for Hezbollah that may be the base to attack Israel, and many [other] pretexts. I believe that these pretexts have fallen and the Israeli-terrorist [relationship] has been exposed. If Hezbollah really wishes, it can attack from the south of Lebanon and do it often and repeatedly, and Israel realizes that knows it well. Thus the Israel pretexts have no basis in reality.
Q: Yes. There are many exaggerations concerning the matter. What is only known is that some of the youth from Hadr joined Quwat al-Wa'ad al-Sadiq affiliated with Hezbollah but this faction is not in Hadr, rather its base is in Sayyida Zainab.
A: I say forces and bases on the ground are not present.
Q: Right. With regards to the Self-Defence Units, do you mean the Local Defence Forces?
A: They are from the sons of the land who have sensed the need to defend the land and dignity- old and young all of them with this name of the Self-Defence Units.
Q: Yes I have understood. Generally how is the humanitarian situation in Hadr? Is there national-grid electricity for example, and is there water?
A: The services situation is generally very good. Water is present, electricity is present...during operations these services became impeded, but after the end of the operations, the workshops returned, and there has been improvement and the services infrastructure situation is very good. The government does not fail the province...thanks be to God matters are very good.
Q: I heard for example that the national grid services have improved since the advance of the Syrian Arab Army in the eastern region.
A: I don't know. My portfolio is the Golan and the southern region of Syria.
Q: Fine. How are the locality of Hadr's relations with the other localities in Quneitra within the embrace of the homeland like Khan Arnabeh?
A: Very good. Brothers of blood and fate.
Q: Is there a plan for the Syrian government at present to recover the localities in Quneitra controlled by the terrorists like Jubatha al-Khashab? According to my understanding the government wants reconciliation agreements with these localities.
A: I don't have information. This is within the army's strategy that I don't have review of.
Q: Fine. Is there something you would like to add about the situation in Hadr or the suffering of the locality of Hadr?
A: Steadfast, and we will be victorious. All respect to you sir.
- Zionist entity: Israel
- Terrorists: Rebels/insurgents, or 'revolutionaries' as described in pro-opposition media.
- 1948 Arabs: Arabs who lived in the territories of Palestine that became part of the initial creation of Israel or were conquered and annexed by Israel during and immediately after the 1948 War. Thus under this terminology comes the Galilee area inhabited by Druze.
- National Defence Forces (NDF) vs. Local Defence Forces (LDF): The NDF was set up in 2012 with the help of Iran and Hezbollah to organize the pro-government popular committees that existed from the outset of the war. However, it seems the NDF's relations with Iran soured over time, and the NDF is not considered an official part of the armed forces. The LDF in contrast is considered part of the armed forces- with its status solidified in legislation earlier this year- and its relationship with Iran is clear. It is thus more appropriate at the moment to see the LDF as equivalent to the Basij, and within the LDF there are formations that can much more clearly be identified as ideologically aligned with Iran. More recently, however, the general commander for the Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps called on the Syrian government to grant official recognition to the NDF, perhaps signalling a desire to rebuild relations. Considering the Syrian government's financial predicaments, it seems likely Iran would have to assume many burdens to support an integration of the NDF into Syria's armed forces.
- Self-Defence Units: News of the training and organization of militias under this name emerged in late 2015 and early 2016 for the Quneitra and Damascus areas. These militias appear to have been trained by Syrian army officers with the support of the Syrian government. Based on the evidence available, the Self-Defence Units in Quneitra have served to protect public facilities, directorates, institutions and installations, as well as man checkpoints.
- Quwat al-Wa'ad al-Sadiq: see my article on the group here. It has recruited people from Hadr and Deir Ali, both Druze localities. The rumours of the building of a 'Golan resistance movement' have previously been tied to Samir Quntar (an originally Druze member of Hezbollah who visited Hadr) and Farhan Sha'alan (an NDF figure in Jaramana whose ancestry traces to Ein Qiniyya in the occupied Golan Heights). Both men were killed in what appeared to be an Israeli strike in late 2015. In reality, the building of a 'resistance' movement in the Quneitra area itself is not necessary since there are many Syrian Hezbollah groups that have origins in a variety of areas of Syria and have engaged in short-term deployments in Quneitra. They could always be sent there in future. There is also sense in Ali al-'Awar's point that if Hezbollah wants to attack Israel in the future, it could easily use the border front of south Lebanon.
- Jaysh al-Tawheed: aka Saraya al-Tawheed
- Rijal al-Karama: I have written about this group on multiple occasions. It is an independent Druze movement based in Suwayda' partly based on rejecting conscription to fight in the Syrian army on far-away fronts. The movement professes to be neither opposition nor loyalist, but operates in the framework of preserving the Syrian state (in practice meaning the government) and will defend Druze areas from enemy attacks. Thus, unsurprisingly, members of the movement have participated in defending Hadr. In relation to Ali al-'Awar's point about reinforcements not coming in under particular faction names, I note that the Rijal al-Karama media director made a similar point to me last year in that Rijal al-Karama fighters who went to participate in the defence of Hadr in 2016 did not go under this name, likely on account of problems with the state security apparatuses.
- Hadr al-Sumud: Hadr the steadfast, referring to the fact that it has not fallen into rebel hands and the repelling of multiple rebel assaults on the area over the years.
- New Lahad Army: referring to the South Lebanon Army led by Antoine Lahad that worked with Israel during its presence in south Lebanon.