Syria’s Druze minority walk a war-time tightrope

Suicide bombs and shootings carried out by ISIS in Sweida on July 25 left more than 250 people dead, mostly civilians.
Wednesday 08/08/2018
Syrian Druze carry a coffin of one of the suicide attacks' victims during a mass funeral in Sweida, on July 26. (SANA) 
Devastated community. Syrian Druze carry a coffin of one of the suicide attacks' victims during a mass funeral in Sweida, on July 26. (SANA) 

BEIRUT - Syria’s Druze minority, targeted by Islamic State (ISIS) attacks and kidnappings in Sweida, had kept itself relatively insulated from the country’s 7-year war.

Here is a summary of the community’s profile, its role in Syria’s conflict and previous attacks against it.

With about 700,000 people, the Druze community accounted for around 3% of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million. Some 200,000 Druze are in Lebanon and more than 100,000 are in Israel, while 18,000 live in the Israeli-occupied Golan.

They live mainly in the southern province of Sweida with small pockets around Damascus and in the north-west, although some have fled extremist-held parts of the latter area.

Druze are monotheistic and considered Muslim. However, the sect is highly secretive and includes mystical elements such as reincarnation and does not allow converts.

Syria’s Druze have been split by the uprising that erupted in 2011 against President Bashar Assad, who had portrayed himself as a protector of the country’s minorities.

Druze should not be seen “as being neutral in this war -- it’s more multifaceted and the Druze are not a monolithic bloc,” said Tobias Lang, an analyst focused on Druze populations in the Middle East.

One of the first soldiers to defect from Syria’s army in protest at its handling of demonstrations was Druze officer Khaldun Zeineddine, who later died in clashes against regime forces.

Others remained firmly loyal, such as General Issam Zahreddine, one of the highest-ranking Druze army officers who died last year in a mine blast after battling ISIS in eastern Syria.

Druze leaders have tried to maintain a good relationship with the regime to keep their areas autonomous and spare them from government attacks but that is a precarious situation.

One symbol of that complex relationship was Wahid al-Balous, a Druze religious authority who pushed for the sect’s soldiers to be deployed near their hometowns, rather than in other provinces. Balous, who died in a car bomb attack in Sweida in 2015, spoke out against both extremists and Assad.

Syria’s Druze have protected their heartland in Sweida with their own forces. The most powerful has been the Sheikhs of Dignity, which was headed by Balous and included fighters and other religious figures. It fought fierce battles against ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Other militia, including the Dareh Al-Watan (Shield of the Nation), a Druze force founded in April 2015 with 2,000 fighters have been closely linked to the regime. The militia appears to have protected Sweida residents from compulsory military service, with authorities turning a blind eye so long as the men fight in units not opposed to the regime.

Suicide bombs and shootings carried out by ISIS in Sweida on July 25 left more than 250 people dead, mostly civilians, and the extremists reportedly kidnapped more than 30 Druze women and children.

The attacks were by far the worst against the Druze community in seven years of war but they were not the first. A car bomb in 2012 ripped through Damascus’s Jaramana suburb, which is mostly Druze and Christian. In 2013 and 2014, fighting between Syrian rebels and pro-regime Druze forces rocked Sweida province and Druze areas closer to Damascus.

ISIS attacked Sweida province in 2015, first targeting Khalkhalah military airport. That same year, 20 Druze Syrians were killed in a shoot-out with al-Qaeda extremists in the village of Qalb Lawzah in north-western Idlib province. Druze residents of Qalb Lawzah had come out against the regime a year into Syria’s uprising.

In 2016, ISIS beheaded four labourers in an area it controlled outside Damascus, accusing them of being Druze and, in 2017, a car bomb killed nine people in Hader, a regime-held village in the south-western province of Quneitra mostly populated by Druze.

(Agence France-Presse)