Syria’s Druze community beset by divisions
DAMASCUS - The relentless war in Syria has created divisions within the country’s minority Druze community. Schisms among the Druze, who are historically strongly unified, became evident when the community’s spiritual leader — Sheikh Akl Hikmat al-Hajri — appealed to his followers in Sweida province to enlist in the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
To emphasise the urgency of his call, Hajri invoked the code “in defence of the faith.” According to Druze tradition, this is a battle cry that is intended to rally the community to confront an imminent threat to its existence.
The appeal, however, was ignored by the vast majority of the Druze.
A member of the Hajri family, who wanted to remain anonymous, accused the sheikh of not invoking the call in the “proper circumstances”, thus damaging its significance.
“The fact that his appeal went unheeded points to the divisions that split the Druze community with regard to the ongoing war,” he said, accusing the Assad regime of causing the inter-Druze schism by appointing Sheikh Hikmat, a loyalist, to succeed the late Sheikh Al Akl Ahmad al-Hajri, alienating a majority of the community, including the powerful al-Huneidi clan who supported a candidate close to the opposition.
Aahd Murad, a Druze journalist and activist, blasted Hajri’s appeal as “a deviation from the national track in favour of the sectarian scheme that had torn the country apart”. He noted that Hajri’s appeal offered a guarantee to those who enlist in the army not to be assigned to fight outside Sweida.
“This puts him in an ambiguous position vis-à-vis the opposition as well as the regime,” Murad said. “On one hand, the opposition regards him as a tool in the hands of the regime while, on the other, the loyalists want all conscripts to fight wherever is needed throughout the country.”
Murad said that in comparing his battle cry to calls made by Druze leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries to rise against Ottoman and French occupiers, Hajri grossly miscalculated.
“In those times, whenever the code was invoked it rallied thousands of fighters while their leaders were in the frontline with the troops. Yet now the battle cry was all but ignored and thus voided from all its historic significance,” he said.
Chaos prevails in the predominantly Druze province. There are 15 armed groups with conflicting loyalties. The largest is the anti-regime Karama group of Sheikh Wahid Balhous, who was killed in a car bomb explosion last September. Karama group has about 4,000 fighters armed with light and medium weaponry.
Yet, according to the inhabitants, the situation remains “acceptable,” as government offices continue to carry out daily work even though there is obvious negligence by the state, due mainly to the presence in the province of a large number of refugees.
The state of affairs in Sweida is compounded by the location of the province. It is on the border of the restive province of Deraa, a stronghold of the opposition, while the Islamic State (ISIS) controls the outskirts to the north-east. Moreover, villages near the Jordanian border have set up their own administrations.
According to private sources, the province is at the mercy of the different armed groups. Government authority has declined to the point that security services no longer dare to arrest someone for avoiding conscription.
On several occasions when such attempts were made, crowds attacked the police and freed the prisoners. In one incident, 17 officers and soldiers were kidnapped to force the government to free a detainee belonging to the Karama militant group. On another occasion, 70 officers and soldiers while on a mission to arrest another member of the group were forced to turn back when confronted by militants.
Zeid al-Shufi, a Syrian activist who lives in Turkey, said the Assad regime has lost all credibility in Sweida and is trying to impose its will by controlling religious leaders like Hajrii. “But the Druze community is aware of these clerics’ true loyalties and how they receive their instructions from the security services,” he said.
“Such leaders have lost their popular base. The government is also trying to regain its waning influence by playing one militant group against another, and by encouraging the state of lawlessness through the spread of arms.”