The life-and-death dilemma of the Druze

Friday 03/07/2015
Members of Druze community

BEIRUT - The massacre of 20 Druze in the northern region of Idlib in Syria sheds new light on the dilemma fac­ing members of the Mus­lim sect whose allegiance is caught between a ruthless Syrian regime that is promoting itself as a defend­er of minorities and rebels increas­ingly dominated by radical Islamist groups.
Four years into a brutal conflict pitting Syrian President Bashar As­sad’s forces against Sunni-domi­nated rebels, including extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda’s affiliate, al- Nusra Front, Syria’s Druze, who have attempted to distance them­selves from the conflict, appear to be ineluctably drawn into it.
On June 10th, a shooting in Qalb Lawzeh, Idlib, spiralled out of con­trol when a Nusra member tried to confiscate the house of a Druze vil­lager who was fighting alongside Syrian government forces, accord­ing to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A week later, Nusra attacked Ha­dar village in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau in southern Syria that is home to about 25,000 Druze. “We cannot exchange one dictator­ship (Assad’s regime) with another (Nusra),” said Jabr Shoufi, a Druze opposition figure in a telephone conversation from Turkey.
An estimated 500,000 Druze live in Syria, according to Akram She­hayeb, a leading figure in the Pro­gressive Socialist Party, the main Druze faction in Lebanon. Most of the Syrian Druze live in Hau­ran, with smaller groups scattered around the southern Golan and Idlib in northern Syria.
Unitarian Druze belong to an Arab ethnic group, spread around Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. The sect, which broke away from Islam more than 1,000 years ago, has closely guarded the tenets of its faith.
Ironically, it is Takia (self-protec­tive secrecy that forces members of the community to outwardly com­ply with the strongest political or religious faction) that has preserved the small minority across the centu­ries.
Today, much of the Takia debate among Syrian Druze is centred on who is the strongest and most relia­ble ally in Syria, with Druze equally wary of the growing clout of Nusra over rebels in their region and of the decline of the Assad regime, which, while abhorred by many, remains in their view a more “secular” option.
In spite of such deep divisions, many Syrian Druze say the civil war is not their fight and that they should distance themselves from the sectar­ian conflict as long as they can.
But the flames of religious strife appear to be increasingly engulfing the community. Sweida, the main Druze stronghold, has witnessed intense clashes around the military base at Thaala airport between re­bels and regime forces backed by members of the Druze community.
However, military-age Druze, who number about 20,000, have refused to join the Syrian Army. Ex­plaining this contradictory position, Sweida resident Raed Shaya said: “Our goal is to protect our region. We support the option of the state and the army without being neces­sarily with the regime.”
Many Druze, particularly the Aja­weed, a group of religious leaders, are nonetheless arming themselves. Sweida residents appear confident that their large numbers and weap­on stocks will protect them against another massacre.
However, for Akram Shehayeb. of the Progressive Socialist Party, the safest bet for the Druze is “main­taining good relations with their brethren and neighbours as they are part of the Syrian social fabric that has equally suffered from the Assad brutality”.
The Druze are known as the great survivors of Levantine history. To­day in Syria, they need to live up to that reputation. There was a time when they could have chosen to join the opposition to Assad. But that time has gone since the peaceful revolution that marked the start of the rebellion morphed into a bloody sectarian war. It is not about defend­ing a cause any more but submitting to an unstoppable reality.
Such pragmatism has pushed the Druze who live in a region that be­came part of Israel in 1948 to stay in their villages and even serve in the Israeli military. Druze residents of the Golan remained in their home­towns during the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, in which the Jewish state occupied the plateau’s western sec­tor. Lebanon’s Druze, at the behest of their leader, Walid Jumblatt, have remained above the fray, serv­ing occasionally as the country’s kingmakers through a controversial and far from principled policy of ag­ile political realignments over the years.
It is such unsavoury pragmatism that’s needed today. The Turks, French and Israelis have come and gone in Syria and Lebanon, but the Druze have remained. To continue to survive, it is likely that this vul­nerable minority will need once again to make unpalatable but nec­essary choices.