The Syrian regime and its opponents both court the small but still influential Druze community. Phil Sands, Foreign Correspondent reports
DAMASCUS // As an increasingly bloody revolt spreads in Syria, the Druze heartland is eerily calm.
In other provinces, scores of protests take place every week and deadly confrontations between the security forces and an increasingly armed opposition are commonplace.
Yet in Sweida, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, demonstrations are rare and, when they do happen, are usually small.
About 500,000 in number and concentrated in the rocky mountainscape of the Jabal Al Arab, the Druze are among the smallest of Syria's minority groups, fewer than the Alawites, Kurds or Christians.
But their reputation for rebellion against central authority and for wielding an influence in Syrian political life disproportionate to their numbers means their support is avidly sought by both Bashar Al Assad and the president's opponents.
Druze activists and political figures are playing a prominent role in the uprising as members of the two major opposition political blocs, the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committees. Druze dissidents have also been instrumental in leading anti-regime demonstrations.
However, in the struggle for Druze support, it is the regime that for the moment remains on top, according to both critics and supporters of the government in the Druze community. Sweida is still seen as a bastion of at least tacit support for Mr Al Assad’s regime, 11 months into an uprising against his rule.
“When it comes to organising big protests, we’ve failed,” said one Druze activist from Sweida. “The uprising here is limited to the intellectuals. We’ve not been successful in getting it out into the wider community.”
Sweida’s silence, according to activists, analysts and Syrian Druze on both sides of the political divide, is the result of a variety of factors, from mundane practical problems to the long-harboured fears of a minority terrified by the prospect of rule by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
For opposition Druze trying to organise street marches in Sweida City, the provincial capital, gathering people in one place has been a constant logistical challenge. There are none of the mosques that have provided a rallying point elsewhere.
"There's nowhere we can legitimately meet in large numbers," said a protester from the city. "The security forces can usually break up any group before it gets big enough to have real strength, they can stop us in ones and twos on the way to a protest, which is much easier for them than stopping hundreds or thousands already in a protest.
Widespread emigration by young Druze, desperate to escape the unemployment and lack of opportunity that bedevil the Jebal Al Arab, also means that men aged 16 to 35, the nucleus of the uprising elsewhere, are relatively few in number.
Those who stay instead of moving elsewhere in Syria or going abroad have, activists say, been drafted into pro-regime militia, known as shabbiheh, with salaries and promises of comfortable government sinecures.
Pro-regime residents are also quick to inform the authorities if they see anything resembling the start of a protest, dissidents say.
“The regime created a weakened and divided society. It made a very hostile environment in Sweida where each family informs on the others and even within families there is physical fighting between regime supporters and dissidents,” said a veteran Druze political activist.
Two major fears cloud the political horizon for the Druze: Islamist extremism and the violence that would accompany any rebellion.
“Lots of people are very unhappy with the regime. They’re angry with the security services, the neglect, poverty and corruption, and they’d like to see a change,” said a protest organiser from Sweida.
Yet those frustrations are not enough to get residents on to the streets.
“If we try to encourage them to take a stand, they’ll either say ‘You’ll bring the tanks here and disaster on to our heads’ or ‘the Muslims will take over and force our women to cover their heads’.”
Widely circulated comments attributed to a Sunni cleric in the neighbouring province of Deraa, where the revolt began, fuelled the sense of alarm. The remarks suggested that Sunni men should feel free to rape Druze women.
Opposition groups insist this was part of a dirty tricks campaign by the regime. By portraying the the uprising as a revolt by Sunni extremists, authorities hoped to foment sectarianism and keep minority groups on side.
A supporter of Mr Al Assad, in his twenties and from a relatively wealthy Druze family, confirmed that fears of religious persecution run deep.
“It started as a political crisis but now this is a sectarian crisis,” he said of the uprising. “Muslims have an intolerant mentality. They do not want us, or the Christians or the Alawites, to live freely. Our freedom is protected by the president.”
The president and his wife, Asma, paid a low-key visit to poor villages in rural Sweida last March, days before the uprising erupted in Deraa. He was already on record as saying that the Arab Spring would not spill over into Syria. Nevertheless, analysts and Syrian Druze say that trip was designed to shore up support in a key area.
Druze are quick to mention Adib Al Shishakli when explaining their support for Mr Al Assad. Shishakli, a Sunni from the central city of Hama, ruled Syria in the early 1950s and sent the military to bombard the Jebel Al Arab and assert central control over the newly independent country.
Druze religious leaders have refused to back protesters. They side with Mr Al Assad and, like him, give warning of a “foreign conspiracy”. Early in the uprising, activists in Sweida held meetings with Druze sheikhs including the three most powerful, Hamoud Al Hinnawi, Hussein Jabour and Ahmed Hajari, to solicit their support.
“They were all with the regime, we couldn’t get them even to be impartial,” said an influential opposition figure involved in the talks. “One of them told us that he would not send shabbiheh [thugs] against us but was unsatisfied with our protests. That was the most positive response we got.
“The other meetings were very bad. One sheikh said, ‘there are 100 dogs [protesters] in Sweida and if they were killed the city would be a better place’.”
In private, according to a number of Druze in Sweida, low-ranking religious figures have been threatened by their superiors with an Islamic version of excommunication for supporting protesters or allowing followers or family members to demonstrate.
Under Druze custom, anyone censured this way is considered beyond God’s reach when they die, a powerful disincentive for the devout.
Security forces have not killed any demonstrators in Sweida. Activists say is part of a deliberate effort to avoid any action that might spark a revolt. Detained protesters say that in comparison with Sunni prisoners, they were given preferential treatment in jail and during interrogations.
Growing use of violence by the opposition is also working against efforts to get more Druze to support the revolt.
“For as long as the uprising remains peaceful we have a chance of convincing the Druze to join the protests. But they are put off when they see armed opposition in other places,” said a Druze opposition figure from Sweida.
Nonetheless, some activists say the regime’s grip on the Druze is weakening and that a tipping point may not be far off, as heavy-handed tactics fuel support for the protests and the government’s failure to bring an end to the uprising erodes confidence in the leadership.
A series of recent arrests in Sweida province, including of Ziaa Al Abdullah, a leading Druze activist only recently freed after months in jail, has added to a sense the authorities are struggling to prevent a wider rebellion on the Jabal Al Arab.
“There are 4,000 people now in Sweida who will openly admit to being opposition, which is much more than six months ago,” said a leading opposition figure in the province. “And there are many people who are privately with us, or who give large amounts of money and medicine to the cause – Druze have been giving secret support to the protesting villages in Deraa since the start.”
When a series of high-profile Druze prisoners were freed last month, families from Sweida, outlying villages and Druze neighbourhoods in Damascus came to pay their respects, in what locals said was a deliberate sign of defiance of the authorities.
In another incident recounted by Sweida residents, a former senior army officer and a Druze, mistakenly jailed for standing near a protest, refused to leave prison when pardoned unless all of the political detainees picked up with him were also freed. The demand was met.
"Families here are very proud and hot blooded so when one group joins the protests, the others will not want to be left out or be called cowards, so momentum could build quickly," an activist said. "Already we see the mood is beginning to change. People are talking more openly. They are losing their patience with with the shabbiheh.
Walid Jumblatt, the mercurial, high-profile Lebanese Druze political leader, has once again turned against Mr Al Assad after voicing support for him before the uprising started. Last month, he urged Syria’s Druze not to join security units that are attacking and killing protesters.
Of the 2,000 security personnel the authorities say have been killed since March, 100 have been Druze, a disproportionate number that suggests Druze security officers are playing a prominent role in confronting the uprising.
On February 7, an elderly man died in a town 20 kilometres north of the city of Sweida during a confrontation between security forces and protesters who had raised aloft the green, black and white independence flag that has become an opposition standard.
According to activists' accounts of the incident in Shahba, which could not be independently confirmed, shabbiheh attacked the group of 300 demonstrators, who then sought refuge in a house where it became plain that one of them required medical treatment after being shocked with a cattle prod. While trying to negotiate the injured activist’s passage to a hospital, a village notable and go-between suffered a fatal heart attack.
The incident, if independently corroborated, seems unlikely to ignite a greater rebellion. Yet were persecution like it to become a common occurrence, the Druze would be pushed past a threshold, according to community activists.
“One day the shabbiheh or security will kill someone here and then the place will explode in their faces,” said one local opposition figure. “The pressure is building all the time, they cannot keep Sweida or the Druze out of the uprising for ever.