Between Hammer and Anvil: The Druze Dilemma in Syria

Opinion

Between Hammer and Anvil: The Druze Dilemma in Syria

Yusri Hazran

13 May 2016

Five years into the bloody civil war, much of this tiny minority in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel sees the Assad regime as the least of all evils.

Syria's 2011 uprising and the ensuing civil war have presented the Middle East's Druze minority with new challenges, and new fears. Amid the expansion of jihadi groups in the conflict, Syrian Druze, who make up three per cent of the population, have felt caught between the anvil of anarchy and the hammer of Islamist extremism.

Five years into the bloody civil war, many members of this tiny minority see Syria's Assad regime as the least of all evils.

Syria's Druze population, at 700,000, is the largest in the Middle East. An estimated one million Druze are scattered throughout Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, with a small minority in Jordan. A small diaspora lives in the Americas, Australia, and West Africa. The Middle Eastern Druze tend to live in mountainous areas. Their religious doctrine, founded in the eleventh century, is in essence secret and has kindled the imagination of many scholars and authors. From the perspective of orthodox Islam, the Druze doctrine — which its adherents call 'al-Tawhid'— is heterodox. It is also a syncretistic faith, combining elements and concepts from sources including Shia Islam, Sufism, and Greek philosophy.

The Druze have played a significant role in Syria's modern history.

Though a small minority, the Druze have played a significant role in Syria's modern history. The Great Syrian Revolt of 1925 broke out in the Jebel Druze mountain range, headed up by Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. After Syria gained independence in 1946 the region retained its autonomy from central government. The first to subject the region to rule from Damascus was former President Adib al-Shishakli and his military regime.

Following the Ba'ath coup in 1963, Druze involvement in Syria's internal politics rose dramatically. Members of the community held high posts in both the army and the party. Although the community's influence began to wane when president Hafez Assad took power in 1970, tightening his grip over the army and security establishments, the Druze continued to support the regime. In part, this was due to its secularism and socioeconomic policies.

Assad’s rise to power

President Bashar al-Assad's rise to power had no significant effect on Druze ties to the regime. Amid the popular uprising that erupted in Daraa, southern Syria in March 2011, the vast majority of the Druze remained loyal to the regime. This was despite support that some intellectuals and elite Druze figures — Rima Flehan, Muntaha al-Atrash, Jaber al-Shufi, and others — gave to the uprising.

Druze loyalty to the Ba'ath regime is not a form of taqiyya (concealment of religious identity to protect personal safety); it is a function of the structure of Syrian society, and the way in which the uprising has unfolded. The increasing Islamisation of the opposition, the rise of jihadis in the conflict, and the disintegration of state authority has driven many Druze, already loyal to the state, deeper into the arms of the regime. In June 2015, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra's massacre of dozens of Druze in a village near Idlib seemed to validate fears of jihadi expansion.

Many Druze still see Assad as the least worst option.

Druze loyalty to the state, and their status as a heterodox sect like Ismailis and Alawites, regarded as infidels by Salafi-jihadi groups, places the Druze in a doubly troubling position. The spiritual leadership, or Mashyakhat al-Aql, remains committed to Assad. Popular religious leader Sheikh Wahid al-Balous established a movement to protest the regime that sought to defend the Druze from jihadi rebels. When he was assassinated in September 2015, his death did not trigger any serious shift in Druze attitudes. Many still see Assad as the least worst option. Many believe the collapse of the regime would dissolve the state itself. These fears are shared by the Druze of the Golan Heights. The vast majority likely still support the regime.

Across the border

The Druze in neighbouring Lebanon and Israel are also torn. Walid Jumblatt, the most prominent Lebanese Druze leader, has declared support for the Syrian uprising. Others who identify with Hizbullah, such as politicians Wiam Wahhab and Talal Arslan, support the regime. The real trend among Lebanese Druze, however, lies in the deep fear they shares with their co-religionists in Syria over jihadi expansion, and what this means for Lebanon.

The Druze in Lebanon are also caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, they face the increasing militaristic frenzy of Hizbullah and Shia demographic expansion into Mount Lebanon, where the Druze traditionally reside. On the other, they face the urgent jihadi threat from Syria. Real concerns regarding Hizbullah led many Lebanese Druze to adopt the Ṭaif agreement, which ended decades of civil war in the country. This accord reinforced confessionalism and Sunni hegemony in Lebanese institutionalised politics. The Druze supported it because they feared a worse alternative: autocratic, theocratic rule in Lebanon, either by Shia Hizbullah or Sunni jihadi groups.

Jumblatt's support of the Syrian opposition can be explained in light of two factors. The first is personal — revenge for his father's assassination at the hands of the Syrian intelligence services in 1977. The second is his strong ties with Saudi Arabia, and the numbers of Druze settled and working in the Gulf. The importance of this economic migration was revealed recently when Gulf states imposed economic sanctions on Lebanon, expelling migrants associated with Hizbullah over the group's military role in Syria.

Druze in Syria, Lebanon and Israel fear jihadi expansion.

In Israel, meanwhile, a large segment of the Druze community hopes Assad survives. They see the regime as the best guarantee of safety for Syrian Druze. From Israel, the Druze have organised solidarity rallies and sent money to the Syrian Druze. They have also violently protested Israeli hospitals treating members of Syrian opposition militia. In one case, a Druze mob beat a wounded militant to death. While concerned about the fate of their brothers in Syria, Israeli Druze recognise their welfare depends on the Assad regime, a bitter enemy of Israel, staying in place.

Over the past year, there has been debate in Israel over whether the army should intervene to protect the Druze community from jihadis. Still, Israeli military intervention does not seem like something the Syrian Druze want. Further, many Druze in Israel and Syria resent what they see as a modus vivendi established by Israel with Islamist militant groups in the Golan. The Israeli Druze spiritual leadership has met with Israeli officials, including the president and Israeli army chief of staff, on the issue, but these meetings were mere lip service for internal purposes. In 1954, Israel refrained from military intervention when the Druze were under severe attack by the Shishakli regime and hundreds were killed. This was despite frequent requests and appeals by the Druze leadership in Israel.

Israel's Druze have traditionally believed that the Druze Mountain in Syria protected their existence in the region, but the Syrian uprising has shown that this stronghold is under serious threat. More importantly, the conflict has revealed the fragility of structures that have protecting such minority groups in the Middle East.

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