The life-and-death dilemma of the Druze
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.