Syria’s Druze on the brink of war: Implications of the ISIS attack on Sweida
The ‘Syrian people are one’, ‘we are all Daraa’, and ‘Oh Daraa we shall support you to death’. These are some of the slogans that were chanted by anti-regime protesters in the southern city of Sweida only a few days after the eruption of the March-2011 Uprising. They were aiming to present their support for people of Daraa who were under regime attack. Alas, these Syrian Druze protesters did not know that, seven years later, they would be targeted with bombs and missiles from neighboring Daraa by Islamists who view them as a group of ‘infidels’. The rosy picture has indeed changed dramatically.
Last week, Islamic State fighters launched a massive attack on the Druze stronghold that killed 216 and left 150 wounded in the worst violence to hit the city since the country’s conflict began. Druze are a secretive Islamic sect that emerged in the 11th century. It is characterized by an eclectic system of doctrines that incorporated elements from various religions and philosophies. It is also known for cohesion and loyalty among its members that have enabled them to maintain their existence for centuries. The number of Druze is about 700,000 in Syria 215,000 in Lebanon and 140,000 in the occupied Golan Heights. In Syria, they inhabit Jabal al-Druze (Druze mountain) about 70 miles south of Damascus. In essence, the Druze have always played a significant role in Syrian modern history much more than their demographic weight would suggest. They are famous for their strong sense of pride and nationalism and are the most rebellious community who fought against the Ottomans and the French mandate. The Great Syrian Revolution of 1925 -which to some extent resulted in the creation of an independent Syria- was initiated in Jabal al-Druze by Sultan al-Atrash; the prominent Syrian rebel and soon later, the Emire of al-Jabal. Ostensibly, this was the only revolution in Syria’s history that cut across class, sects and regionalism.
After independence Syria saw light. Many Druze joined military troops and took part in the struggle for power within al-Baath party and the various militarily coups. Accordingly, they succeeded in maintaining a level of autonomy (socially and culturally speaking), and their enclave enjoyed a relative stability. Regardless of the intra power conflicts in al-Jabal (among al-Amer and al -Atrash family), Druze notables established a status quo with the government in Damascus, and with the neighboring Bedouin tribes. Yet this status quo was breached twice; the first time was in the mid-fifties when President Adib al-Shishakli (in office 1949-56) launched a bloody assault on Jabal al-Druze to counter challenges posed by Bathists there. He is often quoted for saying that his enemies are “like a serpent: the head is the Jabal Al Druze, the stomach Homs, and the tail Aleppo. If I crush the head the serpent will die." The second event took place in 2000, just after Assad junior inherited power. Clashes between Bedouins and Druze men over land ownership led to bloody clashes between both identity groups; it actually aroused the anger of the Druze against the regime for neglecting their agriculture which resulted in the economic deterioration of the area. Assad sent troops to contain the clashes. And the status quo was reestablished for another decade.
With the onset of the March 2011 uprising, the Druze were inspired by their patriotic legacy of Sultan al-Atrash and henceforth protests spread in al-Jabal. The regime security forces turned a blind eye aiming to avoid any provocation. Only few activists were arrested, and punishments were very much limited compared to other rebellious zones in the country. Realistically, the Druze were forced to choose from three options; either to support the regime, or to support the opposition or to stay neutral. They opted for the last one. However, a small group of the Druze community, mainly those who are socio-economically, deprived, opted to support the regime in their quest for empowerment, they joined ranks with regime militias mainly in Jaramana on the edge of Damascus where many Druze had settled prior to the war.
In truth, the decision by mashaikh al ‘akel (an establishment of notables and clerics that is considered as the highest form of authority in al-Jabal) was a result of the opposition attitudes toward the Druze. The fragile and extremely divided opposition, dominated by Islamists, sought to exclude the Druze and was endorsing religious speech, which is far from the secular logic of the Druze clan. However, there seems to be a wide gap between notables and the enthusiastic Druze youth who were active in tansiqyyat al-thwara (the revolution committees). These youth formed the backbone of the uprising and maintained anti-regime activities. Interestingly, they were capable to establish cross class, region and religious ties with other anti-regime youth in different cities and towns. Having studied in universities in different cities (mostly Damascus and Homs) is what facilitated the building of these ties. In addition, mastering social media was, undoubtedly, an essential tool as well.
In this light, the tragic attack on Swieda would force the Druze to recalculate their interests, and to once again choose from the same options; to support the regime, or support the opposition, or stay neutral. Yet they most probably would maintain their stances of neutralism. Further, this attack would provoke the Druze against the regime who many Druze analysts have held responsible for the latest tragedy. They believe that the regime put ISIS at odds with the Druze community when it expelled Islamists from the suburbs of Damascus (al-Yarmouk camp) to suburbs of Damascus a few months ago.
Rationally speaking, the Druze neutral position and rejection of manipulation by any actor could yield the Druze a very significant role in the near future. The fact that a couple of hundred of Druze officers had defected from the Syrian army while thousands of young Druze reject to follow ranks of the military service is an important leverage for al-Jabal. Hosting some 7000 anti-Assad Syrians (mostly Sunnis) who escaped regime punishment is a powerful bottom up approach of building trust and bridging gaps with other identity groups.
As mentioned earlier, the Druze had once drawn the road map of 1947 Syria, now they have the potential of drawing the road map for post-2011 conflict Syria, in which they might have greater roles than in the past four decades.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.