Syria’s Druze in the line of fire as war finally catches up with them

For nearly four years, the minority sect's strategy of avoiding confrontation whenever possible had largely kept them removed from the worst of Syria's civil conflict. But in recent weeks they have looked icnreasingly under attack, writes Josh Wood.

Israelis of the Druze minority wave their flag during a demonstration of some two thousand people in the northern Israeli Druze town of Daliyat Al Carmel on June 14, 2015, calling for the government to support and help their co-religionists in embattled Syria. Menahem Kahana/AFP Photo
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BEIRUT // As a minority group in every Middle East nation in which they live, the Druze have always known to avoid confrontation whenever possible.

For nearly four years this strategy – honed over centuries – kept the more than 500,000 Druze living in Syria mostly removed from the civil war, even as the rest of the country was ravaged. But as rebel groups, including extremists, have advanced, the conflict has finally caught up with them.

This month, 20 Druze were killed by Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra in Syria’s northern Idlib province. Not long after, Hader, a Druze-majority village in the Golan Heights, was surrounded by rebel forces, including Al Nusra. And the Druze heartland of Suweida province where, the community is in majority, has seen a rise in rebel attacks in recent weeks.

Like many other minorities in the country, Syria’s Druze have largely thrown their support behind the regime of Bashar Al Assad, while also using the chaos of the war to enhance their own independence. This, along with Druze men refusing conscription orders, has created tensions with the regime, although the two groups remain allies.

Most Druze rely on the Syrian army and local Druze militias to protect their areas. The exact number of Druze militiamen in Syria is difficult to pin down but Wiam Wahhab, a Lebanese Druze politician with close ties to Damascus, said the Syrian Druze could muster between 60,000 and 70,000 fighters if necessary.

“Everybody will fight,” he said.

As Syria’s Druze have come into increased conflict, their fellows in neighbouring countries have sought to help them. In Lebanon, where the Druze are estimated to make up about 5 per cent of the population, some in the community have been urging men to take up arms and join the fight in Syria.

Mr Wahhab, who heads the Arab Tawhid Party in Lebanon, said if there were a serious attack on Suweida, thousands of Lebanese Druze would volunteer as fighters and that he would help form militias. “We cannot sit in Lebanon while they kill our people in Syria,” he said.

While Mr Wahhab said no formal mobilisation was under way in Lebanon yet, he noted that some Druze religious figures in the country were already training small groups of fighters in Druze villages for a possible deployment to Syria.

In Israel the country’s Druze population has mounted increasing pressure on the government to intervene and protect their fellows in the Golan Heights, which borders Israel.

About 130,000 Druze live in Israel where, in a political break with their fellows across the region, many have integrated into Israeli society and are relied on as a recruiting pool for the country’s armed forces.

With Hader surrounded, the Israeli military said last week that it was preparing for a possible influx of refugees from Syria and would prevent any massacre along the border. However, it has so far remained vague on how it intended to do this.

Tensions came to a head on Monday when Israeli Druze killed a wounded Syrian being taken to hospital in an Israeli ambulance in what was labelled as “lynching” by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to observers of the Druze in Syria, it is the group’s isolated communities in Idlib and the Golan Heights who face the greatest risk at present.

After the killings in Idlib, Jabhat Al Nusra publicly apologised for the incident, but fears remained that similar atrocities could be committed against the sect.

“They have no possible allies there, they are completely alone in a rebel-held area,” said Tobias Lang, an Austria-based political scientist who has written a book about the Druze in Lebanon and Israel.

Aymenn Al Tamimi, a researcher at Philadelphia’s Middle East Forum, agreed that communities outside the Druze heartland of Suweida were in danger. Even the more moderate rebel groups advancing on Druze areas – “their leaders may say the right things but on the ground there is definitely a common resentment about the Druze and their role in the Syrian civil war”, he said.

In Lebanon, a tiny Druze community was able to weather and even prosper in a bloody civil war, but the community’s most powerful leader, Walid Jumblatt, says Syrian Druze will have to adopt different strategies from his own.

During Lebanon’s violent civil war, the Druze maintained their security and survival through shrewd diplomacy, timely deal-making and at times brutal military tactics to crush their enemies.

But Mr Jumblatt, the man responsible for maintaining that balance, believes that in today’s Syria fighting will only further endanger the Druze.

“They are totally surrounded by their neighbours, this is why they should reconcile,” he said. “It’s a totally different situation from Lebanon [during the war].”

Mr Jumblatt continues to support Syrian rebel groups despite facing sharp criticism from his fellows and others in Lebanon after the Idlib killings. He dismissed as absurd the idea that the majority of the Syrian regime’s Sunni opponents shared the same hardline views as Jabhat Al Nusra.

Observers say Mr Jumblatt’s talks with rebels and their backers might have helped keep Druze in overrun areas such as Idlib safer than they otherwise would have been.

“Their future is with the majority of Syria – the Sunni Arabs. That’s it,” he said. “[The Druze] are being used and they will be used by a falling Syrian regime. And this regime, Bashar [Al Assad], will not stay in power.”