The commander of the besieged air base west of town had a message of defiance for the world.
“This will be the terrorists’ graveyard,” vowed the Syrian army colonel at the front gate of the Thalah military airport, well within mortar range of rebels the government calls terrorists.
Here, about 70 miles southeast of Damascus, the Syrian military is making a stand against an opposition onslaught along the nation’s strategic southern flank.
Pro-government forces have repelled several attacks — involving tanks and heavy artillery — on the sprawling air installation. The insurgents are seeking to build on advances in neighboring Dara province, where government forces this month were forced to retreat from the large Brigade 52 base.
After a series of recent setbacks in northern, eastern and southern Syria, pro-government forces say they are determined to protect a vital southern approach to Damascus, seat of power of President Bashar Assad.
The overstretched Syrian military, fighting battles across multiple front lines, is relying here on a key ally: members of the Druze sect, an offshoot of Islam that has adherents in Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Thousands of men from the province are said to have signed up to protect Suwayda, the Druze heartland. Syria is believed to be home to about half of the estimated 1.5 million Druze worldwide.
“We, the sons of Suwayda, will be martyred on our front doors before we let them pass,” vowed Maj. William Abu Fakher, a pro-government militiaman who stood guard with other Druze volunteers, several in their 50s, at a checkpoint in the sun-scorched terrain.
Opposition officials have accused Damascus of rousing sectarian fears among the Druze to bolster support for the government.
“The regime began to incite sectarian divisions with the Druze,” said Bashar Zoubi, head of the Yarmouk Army, a faction of the Southern Front, a Western-backed rebel coalition with supply lines to nearby Jordan.
The large mobilization of Druze fighters helped stall the opposition assault on the air base, Zoubi conceded in a telephone interview. He called the rebel forces moderate and nonsectarian.
But interviews with Druze civilians and fighters here confirm that many regard the rebel advance as a threat to the Druze’s existence. Sunni Islamist groups like Al Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot, view the Druze as heretics.
The rebels have acknowledged battlefield coordination with Nusra militants, who are widely viewed as among the most effective and best-armed fighters in Syria. Nusra has played a key role in attacking the air base, the army says. The Southern Front denies that Nusra has been involved.
This month, alarm spread among the Druze population when Nusra fighters killed at least 20 Druze in Qalb Lawzeh, a village in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Other reports have indicated that the extremists had forced Druze villagers in the north to convert to the militants’ ultra-fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam.
During the punishing, more than four-year conflict, Druze religious leaders in Syria have generally endeavored publicly to steer a middle path, voicing support for peaceful political reform in Syria while rejecting armed rebellion. But like other Syrian minority groups, the Druze are generally viewed as supporters of the government of Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect. The Syrian rebellion arose from the nation’s Sunni majority. Minorities and secular Sunnis are key to Assad’s support base.
The Druze’s perceived pro-government stance has made the sect a target of opposition attacks in areas like Jaramana, a strategic suburb southeast of Damascus. Dozens have been killed in Jaramana by opposition car bombs and mortar strikes. Druze militiamen from Jaramana have helped drive rebels from outlying areas.
But the threat to Suwayda and the sect’s ancestral lands is on a much more profound scale for the Druze. It appears to have galvanized members across the region in a call for collective defense.
“Our only choice is to repel and refuse the entry of any terrorist group into the area of Suwayda,” Sheikh Yusef Jarboo, a top Druze cleric in Syria, told Lebanese broadcaster Al Mayadeen in an interview this month. “We shall resist with all the power we have.”
About 27,000 Druze fighters, the cleric said, were being incorporated “under the umbrella” of the Syrian military, which numbers perhaps 200,000 plus tens of thousands of pro-government militiamen and allies from Lebanon and beyond.
However, across the border in Lebanon, veteran Druze political leader Walid Jumblatt blamed the policies of Assad for bringing Syria “into this chaos” in a comment on his official Twitter account.
Some of the most strident calls to defend the Druze of Syria have come from Israel, home to a substantial Druze minority, including many in the occupied Golan Heights.
“The Druze sect is facing existential danger,” Hamad Amar, a Druze member of the Israeli Knesset, warned publicly last week, adding that his sect “will not stand with its arms folded before any current or future danger facing our brothers in Syria or elsewhere.”
In recent weeks, thousands of Druze living in Israel have taken part in rallies in support of coreligionists in Suwayda and elsewhere in Syria. Many also harshly criticized Israel’s ongoing medical treatment of wounded Syrian rebels, who, the Druze said, include Nusra militants.
Israeli officials say the medical aid is a humanitarian gesture offered to combatants and civilians alike, without regard to sect or political affiliation.
Here in Suwayda, home to about 70,000 people, mostly Druze, there is little outward sign of the war raging elsewhere in Syria. The city has been largely insulated to date. Streets are bustling and there is none of the vast devastation seen in Homs, suburban Damascus and Aleppo. The highway south from the capital remains open and under government control, though traffic is thin.
But the recent rebel attacks, which included a dozen or so mortar strikes on the city and its outskirts, have brought the conflict closer to home, as have the killings of the Druze in Idlib province
“People here were very angry about what happened to our brothers in the north,” said film editor Obeida Rahroh, 23, referring to the slayings of the villagers in Idlib province. “We are all willing to fight for our homeland if we have to. Suwayda will not fall.”
Another resident, who asked for anonymity, said many here opposed the government of Assad. “But that does not mean we want the Islamists to take over and for Syria to become like Libya or Iraq,” he added. “We want peaceful change.”
About 10 miles west, at the entrance to the Thalah military air base, Syrian soldiers were digging trenches and eyeing rebel lines from behind sandbagged machine-gun emplacements on the edges of olive groves. Smoke arose in the direction of the opposition-held village of Umm Walad, a few miles away.
Airstrikes have been critical in pushing back the rebels, who attacked this month from the west and south of the city, using tanks and mortars, the army said. The opposition labeled the attack “the battle of the crushing of the tyrants.”
Some confident rebels even planned to rename the Thalah base, once taken, after Faisal Qassem, a Suwayda native and pugnacious talk-show host on the Al Jazeera satellite channel known for his pro-opposition stance.
But the insurgents did not manage to infiltrate the air base or get close enough in the open, flat terrain to deploy suicide vehicles, said Syrian army 1st Lt. Talal Amer.
“They expected the neighboring villages to join them, but the opposite happened,” said Amer, a Druze from Suwayda.
At nearby Druze villages the other day, residents were bringing food and tea to the Syria soldiers.
“They think they can come here, then let them try,” said a Druze woman, 47, a mother of three with a white head scarf who gave her name as Umm Fadi and hosted Syrian soldiers in her home. “We won’t run away.”
Bulos is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.