Syria’s Druze minority arming to defend against ISIS
DAMASCUS - Syria’s Druze minority has tried hard to stay neutral in the raging war between the Alawite regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the mainly Sunni-driven opposition. However, more than four years into the conflict, the community — 3% of Syria’s population — is taking up arms to defend itself against the threat of rampant Islamic radicalism.
With the support of Lebanese co-religionists, Syrian Druze, who played a major role in shaping the country’s modern history, are preparing for a much feared battle with the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, whose fighters have reached the outskirts of their heartland of Sweida in Jabal al-Arab, in southern Syria.
According to Youssef Jarbou, one of the community’s three sheikhs al-Aql — the highest spiritual leaders — the Druze are regrouping in a single force under the banner Nation Shield to confront the looming danger.
“This group was established in order to face the big threats posed by radical terrorist organisations that have been endangering the nation for more than four years,” Jarbou told The Arab Weekly.
“Today, the province of Sweida is in big danger, necessitating the creation of Nation Shield to defend the land, the people and the nation.
“We will not allow chaos and disorder in Sweida. We, also, will not allow ISIS to enter the province, which our youth are fully ready to defend,” Jarbou said. “We are deeply worried and cautious about our future and what is being plotted against our area.”
The mountainous Sweida province is the heartland of Syria’s Druze population.
According to sources in the Druze community in Lebanon, their co-religionists in Syria feel abandoned after the Syrian Army, fighting for the survival of Assad’s regime, pulled out the bulk of its troops stationed in the province. “The Druze in Syria are being left alone to face their fate. They can only rely on themselves for protection,” said one source who asked for anonymity.
The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Sweida coupled with speculation that the Assad regime was playing to protect itself and its interests by setting up an enclave for its Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam, in two provinces along the eastern Mediterranean coast.
It is rumoured that the enclave will serve as the seat of Assad’s presidency if his regime collapses in Damascus, which is surrounded by hotspots ruled by the armed opposition, ISIS militants or other Islamist radicals.
With that in mind, the Druze would find themselves in a divided, war-ransacked country with no clue of who might win the right to rule.
Since the outbreak of anti-regime demonstrations, which developed into a fully fledged civil war, the Druze have been reluctant to adopt a clear-cut position in support of one party or another. When mass demonstrations erupted in nearby Sunni Deraa in March 2011, Sweida remained relatively calm.
While discreetly accommodating the regime, the community’s religious and political leaders have opted for disassociation from the conflict, preaching neutrality rather than rebellion. Eventually, this strained once good relations with Sunni neighbours.
Opposition to the regime has clearly increased among the Druze in the past two years, so is apprehension over the Islamist character of the rebellion and the growing tide of radicalism.
The split among Druze politicians in Lebanon over the Syrian conflict — some advocating rebellion against Assad; others preaching opposition to the Sunni-driven rebellion — also fed existing Druze dilemmas.
The community had already paid a heavy price in the conflict. Many young Druze who were conscripted into the army have been killed after being positioned at the forefront of battles. This resulted in defections of Druze personnel and resistance to further conscription. The army refrained from moving against them, preferring not to inflame Druze antipathy against the regime.
Jarbou brushed aside allegations that the regime has abandoned Sweida to an unknown fate, although he acknowledged that mistakes had been committed. “The state is engaged in other regions where (opposition) attacks are being waged on the nation, giving the impression that it had given up on Sweida,” he said.
However, blunt denunciations of the regime were made earlier in 2015 by Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, who is said to have some 10,000 armed followers. Balous rose to prominence after repelling an attack by al-Nusra Front on the village of Deir Dama in Sweida’s countryside. His and other armed groups affiliated with religious scholars are reportedly joining forces under Nation Shield.
According to a Sweida-based writer and historian, who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity, “the battle of the Jabal” is inevitable and will be a turning point in the conflict.
“There is no doubt that the province will witness acts of violence and that the bill will be very high,” the writer said. “He pointed out that Sweida’s residents were stocking up on food and dozens of youth were enlisting in Nation Shield, which is to be led by retired Druze Army General Nayef al-Akel.
Accusing ISIS and al-Nusra Front of being tools for Western powers, the writer said, “The majority of the Druze are determined to resist the substitute of the American-Western army (ISIS) and defeat them, exactly as their ancestors did against tyrants in the past.”
Druze disaffection with the regime is well below the level of acute hostility commonly felt by Sunnis. But many of prominent sheikhs have openly become increasingly critical and defiant, making demands and serving warnings to both the government and the opposition.