Plight of Syria's Druze mobilises community across the region

Plight of Syria's Druze mobilises community across the region
5 min read
22 June, 2015
Analysis: Druze across the Middle East are looking for ways to support their brethren in Syria, who face fresh attacks daily.
Druze communities across the region are scrambling to rescue Druze in Syria [AFP]

Druze leaders in Lebanon and Palestine are rallying to the aid of Syrian Druze, who have come under recent attack  from the Nusra Front, the armed Sunni jihadist al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.

There are huge differences among community representatives on how to best deal with the situation.

With the diverse and often conflicting political and ideological orientations; their entanglement with the governments of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and Jordan; and the complexities of the conflict in Syria, there are many variables at play - and all options are in varying shades of "bad".

Barbarians at the gates

Perhaps for the third time since the Great War, and like all sizeable minority communities between Basra and the shores of the Mediterranean, the Druze community in Syria finds itself having to deal with the the collapse of the standing order and the implications for their survival.

Even for the largely secular Druze, it is not easy to avoid feeling existentially threatened, with various jihadist groups essentially perceiving Druze as apostates who must convert to Sunni Islam or die. 

Druze citizens of Syria live all across the country, from Idlib to the southern provinces. However, their historic heartland falls in the Jabal al-Arab region in the Suweida governorate, with sizeable presence in the Golan, where thousands live under direct Israeli occupation.

Druze leaders in Syria are torn between taking up arms alongside the Syrian government, a desirable scenario for the regime; taking up arms on the basis of self-defence in their heartlands; and neutrality in the Syrian revolt - if not appeasement of the rebels.

     There have been calls for the Druze in Syria to join the anti-Assad forces, but these have found little traction.

There have been calls for the Druze in Syria to join the anti-Assad forces, but these have found little traction.

Already, thousands of Druze have fought in the ranks of the Syrian army and auxiliary National Defence Forces (NDF). But the Assad regime has recently been facing problems when conscripting Druze soldiers.

Time is running out, and with the regime on the retreat, it is unlikely to be able to defend the areas it controls in the Druze heartlands. The Druze in Syria are unlikely to be able to arm themselves well enough to fight the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group should they draw nearer to their townships, so options essentially boil down to some form of deal with the Nusra Front, or on some kind of regional foreign intervention.

Lebanon's Druze divided

The foremost Druze leader in Lebanon is MP Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Progressive Socialist Party. Jumblatt is opposed to the Assad regime, and believes the Druze should join the Syrian rebels.

Jumblatt's own experience in the Lebanese civil war has taught him that the best way to ensure the survival of his small community in dark times is by walking a tightrope between the region's most powerful actors and communities.

Jumblatt's approach to resolving the conundrum facing the Druze in Syria is thus based on appeasing the Nusra Front and other Sunni rebel groups.

A smaller faction in the Lebanese Druze community supports Assad, and is led by Talal Arslan and Wiam Wahhab. They believe the Druze community in Syria should arm themselves and side with the regime, while accusing Israel of backing rebel groups including the Nusra Front.

     The Druze in Lebanon have not sent fighters to Syria, though... Lebanese Sunni and Shia fight in Syria on both sides.

It should be noted that, so far, the Druze in Lebanon have not sent fighters to Syria, though there have been recent calls to so so. By contrast, there are Lebanese Sunni and Shia fighting in Syria on both sides.

Palestine's Druze

The same kind of strong and historical bonds that have rallied the Druze in Lebanon to support their brethren in Syria operate in the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies, and to a lesser extent in Jordan.

Many in the Druze community across historical Palestine and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights want to cross the border and defend Druze villages in Syria.

Israeli Druze, who are well integrated into the state and the Israeli army, have even called for the Israeli army to intervene to "protect" Druze villages. The Druze under Israeli authority are also unhappy about Israel's purported treatment and support of rebels in Syria.

The complex nature of the conflict means that Israel has to tread very carefully. Israel and Syria are officially at war. Hizballah is also involved in the Syrian conflict alongside the regime.

At the same time, Israel is wary of having a jihadist threat across the border. There is pressure on Israel's government to act now, and reports indicate that Israel, wary of a stream of Druze frugees, has started preparing for the possibility of establishing a "safe zone" for Syrian Druze on the Golan frontier.

The Jordanian connection

The Druze community in Jordan is tiny by comparison with elsewhere in the region, and cannot mount much pressure on their government to intervene.

But there are reports Jumblatt has been in contact with the Jordanian and Turkish governments seeking a pledge to protect the Druze in Jabal al-Arab and in the northern governorate of Idlib.

Jumblatt was in Amman on Thursday, where he met with the country's leaders.

There are conflicting reports as to whether Jordan has offered such guarantees. Recently, there has been talk of a Jordanian role in supporting the opposition Southern Front in Syria, which has been operating in Druze-majority areas.

Though the threat could well be existential, the Druze community in Syria is better positioned than other religious communities to defend itself. Its willingness to arm and/or conclude a deal with the rebels, its regional extensions, and its shared interests with the governments of their country and the region give the Druze in Syria some options.

Though there will probably be very tough times ahead for Syria's Druze, they are unlikely to be as unlucky as the Yazidis or the Christians in Iraq.