US politicians speak to Druze leader Sheikh Al Hajari as anti-Assad protests continue
Three members of the US House of Representatives have spoken to Syrian Druze leader Sheikh Hikmat Al Hajari in a show of bipartisan support from Washington, as protests against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad continue.
Republicans Joe Wilson, chairman of the Middle East subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, French Hill and Democrat Brendan Boyle held calls with the spiritual leader this week.
The engagements come as protests in the Druze-majority city of Suweida, which hearken back to 2011's unprecedented displays of anti-regime sentiment, pass the one-month mark.
Mr Boyle “reaffirmed bipartisan congressional support for the peaceful protests in Suweida and Deraa” during his conversation with Sheikh Al Hajari, he told The National.
“As the co-chair of the Friends of a Free, Stable, and Democratic Syria Caucus, I enjoyed the opportunity to speak briefly with Sheikh Hikmat Al Hajari on Tuesday … I urge my other colleagues in the House and Senate to do the same,” he added.
Demonstrations broke out after authorities more than doubled fuel prices in a marked change to Mr Al Assad’s civil war strategy of placating minority sects.
A representative from Mr Hill's office told The National that during his conversation with Sheikh Al Hajari, they discussed “the frustrations of the local people … and how the Sheikh is concerned about their safety”.
Sheikh Al Hajari “also reported that the Assad regime is cutting off access to water and electricity, and talked about the nightly Captagon trafficking … and he's concerned over the impact Captagon has on [Suweida's] young people”, the representative added.
The calls, enabled by the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, felt like “a conversation between friends”, the group's executive director Mouaz Moustafa told The National.
“Now Sheikh Al Hajari has had higher-level US engagements than Bashar Al Assad,” he added.
Mr Moustafa, who sat in on the calls, said Sheikh Al Hajari expressed fears to the congressmen that “Iranian-backed militias would perpetrate more violence” in the protest-rattled governorate, and expressed the “importance [for him], as a spiritual leader, to ensure demonstrations remain peaceful”.
Last week, Assad regime security forces injured at least three people after firing on demonstrators outside a local government building, a watchdog said.
“For the people of Suweida, whether Druze or Bedouin or Muslim or Christian, [the phone calls] show the world is watching,” Mr Moustafa added.
The pre-eminent spiritual body for Druze people in Suweida is split on the protests.
Two of the body’s three head clerics, including Sheikh Al Hajari and Sheikh Hamoud Al Hannawi, have offered their support for demonstrations against the regime. But the spiritual body's third cleric, Sheikh Youssef Jarbouh, maintains a pro-Assad stance, claiming that “Suweida will not deviate from the decision of the Syrian state”, according to research from the US-based Washington Institute for Near East Policy.