Trapped Between Assad, Israel, and al Qaeda
Syria’s million-strong Druze minority finds itself in the crosshairs of war — and forced into a no-win choice to secure its survival.
BEIRUT — On June 5, a Druze sheikh in Qalb Lozeh, a village in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, sent out a desperate voice message over WhatsApp calling for help against fighters from the steadily approaching al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
“They’ve been coming to our homes, and [they] want to remove our sons, our boys between 10 and 14 years old, and put them in a training camp for two months. We don’t know what they’re going to teach them, and they’re threatening us,” the sheikh said in the recording. “They want to take away our weapons.”
Two weeks later, al-Nusra Front fighters stormed several homes and killed over 20 Druze in Qalb Lawzeh, including men over 70 years old and boys as young as 8, reportedly over a property dispute. In the days that followed, reports from Idlib claimed that al-Nusra Front fighters in the area refused to allow residents to bury their dead, and insisted that they adhere to Islamic law or else be evicted from the area.
These latest attacks come just weeks after Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of al-Nusra Front, touted his group’s tolerant attitude toward the Druze in an interview with Al Jazeera. The Druze “are present in the liberated territories and are not harmed,” he said.
His claims do not reflect the realities facing the Druze, a minority sect that has been fighting for survival in opposition-held areas for several years. In fact, when al-Nusra Front took control of Idlib at the start of 2015, one of its first decrees forced the Druze in several villages, including Qalb Lawzeh, to convert en masse to al-Nusra’s version of Islam or else face death. The decree also ordered the complete destruction of Druze symbols and shrines in the area. Residents in Druze areas also report the continual harassment of, and attempts to enroll, Druze children into al-Nusra Front camps.
The Druze of Idlib are not the only ones in danger. The drums of war have now reached the gates of Sweida province in southern Syria, home to the country’s largest Druze population. With a coalition of opposition fighters led by al-Nusra Front approaching from the west and the Islamic State from the east, this minority group is struggling to survive, as it risks becoming a pawn in the geopolitical game being played by the region’s most powerful actors.
One of those actors is Israel. For the last couple of weeks, some Israeli Druze close to the government have led a media campaign to push the country to intervene to protect the Druze. But the majority of the Syrian Druze see this as part of a bigger plan by Israel to use them to create a buffer zone along its northern border and view their intentions with suspicion.
As the Syrian civil war rages on, the Druze face choosing among three options to ensure their survival: the Syrian government, an opposition led by al-Nusra Front, or Israel.
The Druze and al-Nusra Front
The Druze are a secretive Islamic sect that number about 700,000 in Syria, 215,000 in Lebanon, and 140,000 in Israel. Considered heretics by groups like al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State, they have, so far, largely tried to stay neutral in the Syrian conflict. While increasingly vocal pockets of Druze opposition voices have emerged in recent months as President Bashar al-Assad’s regime weakens and endures ongoing military losses, a concerted effort to step away from the government has yet to coalesce.
But as the war drags on, a campaign launched by pro-opposition groups and individuals is pushing the Druze to abandon the government and side with the opposition, offering assurances that the minority sect will remain untouched by the largely Islamist-led coalition of opposition groups.
Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has gone a step further, voicing his full support for al-Nusra Front. In a February interview with the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat, he pointedly declared that the jihadi movement was not a terrorist group. In an interview with Foreign Policy earlier this year, Jumblatt also dismissed the notion that mass conversion of the Druze in Idlib was a problem. “I’m not going to be forced to change my mind because a minority of Druze are being harassed in Idlib,” he said. “For a long time, the Druze there have been living in a Sunni environment, so now they have to abide by the rules of the majority, such as praying five times a day … Even if they are forced to leave, I’m not going to change my mind.”
The events in Idlib over the last few months suggest that the praise Jumblatt has heaped on al-Nusra Front has failed to moderate the U.S.-designated terrorist group’s attitude toward the Druze. In an attempt to subdue the tensions that flared after last week’s atrocities, Jumblatt declared the killings “an isolated incident,” while working frantically behind the scenes with Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia to limit the fallout. A few days later, al-Nusra Front issued an apology, claiming the actions were carried out by individuals who will be taken to court and face justice.
But such statements are falling on deaf ears. Even many Druze who demonstrated against the government in the uprising’s early days, and who still voice anti-government sentiments, have seen enough to realize a future under the opposition is likely to put them in jeopardy.
When the conflict began, a rebel Druze group called the Sultan Pasha al-Atrash Battalion emerged in Sweida. The group helped dozens of fighters from Liwa Fajr al-Islam, an Islamist group based in the neighboring Deraa province, to infiltrate villages in the southern province, according to activists in the area. But the group’s fighters were soon captured by al-Nusra Front fighters in Deraa and sentenced to death, opposition reports stated. Though mediation efforts secured the release of some of the captives, the group was soon dismantled. Since the start of the uprising, hundreds of Druze in Syria’s south have been kidnapped, some killed, and others still missing as opposition groups continue to gain control in the area, according to Sweida residents and media reports.
“Even Druze who do support the opposition groups know there are limits,” said Talal al-Atrash, a political activist from Sweida. “They don’t trust the opposition. They don’t trust the rebels, the [jihadis], al Qaeda, and the countries that have been supporting them.”
“They saw what happened to the Druze in Idlib, and they saw what happened to the Druze rebels in Deraa. They saw how thousands of civilians from Deraa fled to Sweida, and what happened to the Druze civilians that were abducted and killed in Deraa,” he said. “They saw … what happened to the so-called ‘liberated areas’ that were ethnically and religiously cleansed and are ruled by sharia courts.”
The Druze and the Syrian government
The relationship between the Syrian government and the Druze remains complicated. At the start of Syria’s civil war, the traditionally nationalist Druze refused to take an active stance against the government, instead preferring the protection of a strong state over a loose collective of secular opposition groups with a now-apparent limited shelf life. Thousands of Druze serve in the Syrian army, and reportedly 3,000 Druze have died fighting for the government, according to members of the opposition. Yet as the crisis dragged on and the government enforced army conscription across the country, many Druze refused, resulting in arrests and limited confrontations in Sweida.
Anti-government actors, such as Sheikh Wahid al-Balous in Sweida, have achieved a certain level of influence precisely because many feel the government has manipulated their position of neutrality, arresting dozens for dodging army conscription, yet not doing enough to protect the province from opposition groups coming from Deraa and its surroundings. “We’ve been asking for weapons to protect the Druze areas, and the government wants us to join the army,” one pro-regime Lebanese Druze official said to Foreign Policy. “There are many Druze who don’t want to fight in other provinces, preferring to defend their own areas.”
Balous began pushing for people to take a stand against the government for not doing enough to protect Sweida. He set up his own militia, the Sheikhs of Dignity, and called on those who were dodging military conscription to join him instead. “The weakening of the centralized government and the absence of an organized civil society in Sweida led to some sort of vacuum that Sheikh Balous was able to fill by promoting himself as a local leader capable of defending the Druze,” Atrash said.
Yet as the opposition advances on Sweida — first with the capture of the Brigade 52 base, a government military base, and then with the heavy attacks on al-Thaaleh air base, located less than five miles outside the city — hundreds if not thousands of Druze have joined forces with local pro-government militias, such as the National Defense Forces and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, to prevent further advances by opposition groups.
Furthermore, a number of the Bedouin tribes outside Sweida — with which the Druze have a historically antagonistic relationship — have recently begun helping groups like the Islamic State.
Osama Abu Dikar, a Sweida-based journalist and editor in chief of Al Haqiqa newspaper, said the regional players have made a conscious decision to force the Druze to take a side, despite the community’s efforts to stay out of the conflict.
“It is not a coincidence these events are happening right now,” he said. “For four years, no one ever mentioned the Druze, and now suddenly they are in the spotlight.”
According to Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst focused on the Syrian uprising and its various players, any opposition move now made on Sweida will unite all the Druze. “One can talk about Druze resistance and [the] conscription of Druze into the Syrian army, but regardless of how they view the regime, for them this [move into Sweida] is an issue of terrorism and has to be fought off,” he said. “The rebels’ goal is to get the Druze to abandon regime control in their region, but that won’t be successful. [The Druze] are terrified, especially after Idlib, of what would happen to them if the rebels took over.”
Whether the Syrian army has the force to protect the area remains to be seen. “The army has not been tested in Sweida [like in other areas],” said Abu Dikar. “So we don’t know if it is capable or not. This is now the test.”
The Druze and Israel
Meanwhile, Israel has emerged as a third option for the Druze. For the last year or so, there has been discussion in Israel over what protection it can offer the Druze. Numerous Israeli Druze officials and religious figures have called for the government to intervene and help their co-religionists, calls that have only increased in recent weeks as Islamist-led opposition groups advance on Sweida. The calls range from direct military intervention and offering humanitarian aid, to creating a Druze “statelet.”
Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druze who works closely with the Israeli government and maintains strong ties with the Syrian opposition, said the Druze in southern Syria now face an “existential threat” and has called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to intervene. Even Israel’s president has waded in, telling U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey last week that “what is going on just now is intimidation and threat to the very existence of half a million Druze” living very close to the Israeli border.
While Israeli media reports have so far ruled out direct military intervention on behalf of the Druze, the option of offering humanitarian aid remains on the table. Meanwhile, there has also been talk of creating an autonomous Druze statelet in southern Syria, under the protection of Israel, or establishing a protected area for the Druze who flee to the border.
Several political and security sources both in Syria and Lebanon have confirmed to Foreign Policy that Israeli Druze, on behalf of the Israeli government, have attempted to foster close contacts with Syrian Druze in Sweida to work towards an Israel-sanctioned solution for the Druze. So far, these attempts have been rebuffed, and Syrian Druze in Sweida are rejecting the idea of an Israeli plan.
“There is a continued psychological campaign to push the Druze to seek help from Israel,” said Ashraf al-Jaramani, a political activist in Sweida. “But we refuse this, and we don’t need or want any help from anyone except the Syrian army.”
The Israeli idea of a Druze autonomous state is not a new one. For Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, it would not be unusual for Israel to try to court the Druze in Syria’s south. “Israel has a vested interest in the whole southern region and would like to have some kind of buffer zone,” he said. “There is a long history of Israel fishing in Syria’s troubled waters and seeing if the Druze are amenable to some kind of little protectorate.”
Yet as opposition groups quickly advance on Druze villages near Israel’s northern border, Israel has made it clear it will not sit idly by. On Wednesday, Netanyahu said he will “do what is necessary” to help Syria’s Druze. Israeli officials have also warned the Islamist-led opposition groups to stay away from the Druze villages along the border.
Some Druze, meanwhile, remain convinced that Israel is far from sincere in its promises to help their community. In fact, they believe Israeli officials are also helping their archenemies, in a cynical attempt to expand their influence in southern Syria.
“The Druze are aware that Tel Aviv is supporting the so-called ‘moderate’ [jihadis], including al Qaeda’s [al-Nusra Front],” said Atrash. “The Israelis are playing a double game; they are helping the [jihadis] that are threatening the Druze, while offering the Druze protection.”
“It is no secret to anyone that Israel’s old dream is to secure a buffer zone that would guarantee its security in the long run.”
Photo credit: Zein Al-Rifai/AFP