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The Syrian Civil War Comes to the Druze

The American Interest, June 2015

After years of steering clear of the fight, Syria’s Druze are now in danger of being drawn into the war’s horrors .

After more than four years of successfully evading the brunt of the Syrian civil war, the country’s Druze community, which constitutes some 3 percent of the country’s population, is now in danger of being drawn into the war’s horrors. The bulk of the Syrian Druze live in the area known as the Druze Mountain in the south of the country, close to the Jordanian border. Two smaller clusters can be found in the north near Idlib and on both sides of the ceasefire line in the Golan, in several villages under Israeli control, and in the village of Hadar in the area contested by the Syrian army and a variety of opposition groups.

Until recently Syria’s Druze managed to sit on the fence of the conflict, refusing to join the fight, adopting a mildly pro-regime attitude, and maneuvering skillfully out of the line of fire. This is hardly surprising for a heretical minority community that for centuries has managed to survive in a difficult region by dealing skillfully with a long list of central governments and difficult neighbors. Since the end of World War I, the Druze have lived In Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (previously Mandatory Palestine), and have played different roles in each of these polities. Recently, three ominous developments in Syria have put the community under threat and may well acquire a larger significance: one is a massacre perpetrated by Jihadis in a Druze village near Idlib, the other is the prospect of a Jihadi takeover of the village of Hadar, and the third is the danger of a major offensive by the Islamic State against the Druze Mountain.

These developments should be understood in the larger context of Syria’s sectarian politics. In the mosaic of ethnic and religious communities in Syria, two groups, the Alawites and the Druze, have stood out as “the compact minorities.” Both have been territorially concentrated in mountainous regions. Both have also been cultivated by the French Mandatory authorities against the Sunni Arab Nationalists of the big cities. The French created Alawite and Druze statelets and recruited members of both groups into the local army. The Druze and Alawites statelets were only integrated into the Syrian state in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the process was not an easy or smooth one.

Unrelated to this was the fact that many young Alawites and Druze were drawn in the 1940s and 1950s to the Ba‘ath Party. They were attracted by its secular brand of Arab nationalism, free of Sunni hegemony. Both communities, offshoots of Shi’a Islam, are not considered proper Muslims by Sunni conservatives and zealots; thus neither community is comfortable with the Sunni tincture of Arab nationalism.

The disproportionate number of Alawites and Druze in the ranks of the Syrian officer corps and the Ba’ath Party endowed them also with a disproportionate role in the Ba’ath regime once a group of Ba’athi officers seized power in March 1963. Small wonder that the Sunni majority has viewed it as a minoritarian regime, and that the sectarian issue has dominated Syrian politics since that year. In time, the Alawites pushed the Druze out, and a minoritarian regime has become instead an Alawite-dominated one.

Once the current civil war broke out and became essentially a Sunni rebellion against the Alawite regime, the Druze (as well as the Christians and other minority groups) have tended to act as passive supporters of the regime. They bear no great love for Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts, nor for his Iranian patrons or Hizballah, but they fear that a Sunni victory ,a Jihadi one in particular, would expose them to political harassment and physical danger.

These threats are now manifesting prior to the regime’s apparent defeat, in fact. The potential repercussions go beyond Syria’s border. The Druze are no longer the fierce fighters they once were. An Islamic State offensive against the Druze Mountain could topple their stronghold and would bring the threat closer to the Jordanian border. The Druze community in Lebanon is agitated, and that country, already on the brink of disaster, could be further buffeted.

But the main potential for change and risk concerns Israel. The Druze community is well integrated and quite influential, with representation in politics, the IDF, and other national security agencies. And it had begun a campaign to draw Israel in to support their Syrian brethren. The issue of Hadar is relatively simple; it is close to the Israeli lines, and the IDF can threaten, deter, and even intervene in a limited way. But should war come to the Druze Mountain, far from the Israeli border, Jerusalem’s dilemma would be much more difficult. There would be the domestic Druze pressure, and there would be the argument that Israel’s credibility as an ally of the community would be at stake. The counter argument would be that Israel has managed to remain out of the Syrian civil war and must not slide down that slippery slope. In the background would be the memory of Israel’s calamitous intervention in Lebanon’s politics in the 1980s. The challenge for the Israeli government, should matters come to a head on the Druze Mountain, would be to find the magic formula of extending help without being drawn in. This is a difficult prospect, but not an impossible one.

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