War Tests Syrian Druze’s Loyalties and Israel’s Neutrality

Syria’s Druze are torn between supporting Bashar Assad and seeking help from neighboring Israel.

View of the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border, September 5, 2006
View of the Golan Heights on the Israeli-Syrian border, September 5, 2006 (David Poe)

Islamist attacks on Syria’s Druze are testing the community’s loyalty to Bashar al-Assad’s regime as well as Israel’s policy of nonintervention in the civil war.

Last week, the radical al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, killed at least twenty Druze villagers in the Idlib Governorate close to Aleppo. Earlier, hundreds of Druze in the area were forced to convert to Sunni Islam while shrines and graves were destroyed, according to local activists.

Nusra fighters are also only a few kilometers away from the city of Suwayda in the far south, the main Druze population center.

Most Syrian Druze, who only account for 3 percent of the population, live in the Jabal al-Druze area around Suwayda.

The Druze religion is an offshoot of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, and incorporates elements of the Middle East’s other major religions as well as Greek philosophy. Islamic revivalist movements like Al Qaeda and Islamic State consider the Druze to be heretics.

Syria’s other rebel groups also tend to be agonistic because the Druze have largely stayed loyal to President Assad. Like Syria’s other minorities, the Druze looked to Assad’s secular Alawite regime for protection against the country’s majority Sunni population.

But Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reports that the Druze are increasingly divided.

When the Syrian revolt erupted in 2011, the Druze disappointed Assad by refusing to declare their unreserved support for him. The Druze, for their part, were furious over the Syrian army’s inability to defend the Druze around Suwayda from a campaign of abductions by Sunni rebels.

The regime’s priority is defending the capital, Damascus, and Assad’s Alawite homeland on the coast from rebel attacks. The Druze feel abandoned by the national army which fights a sectarian war alongside the Shia militia Hezbollah with the backing of Iran against mostly Sunni rebels who are supported by Saudi Arabia and the other Arab powers.

The Nusra Front’s violence against Syria’s Druze is reminiscent of the Islamic State’s genocidal persecution of Iraq’s Yazidis. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee last year when the self-proclaimed caliphate began massacring members of the sect.

Fears of a “Druze Holocaust” have prompted Israel’s Druze community to raise money for their co-religionists in Syria and pressure the government to intervene.

Politico‘s Ben Judah reports that the Jewish state is mulling creating “Druze safe zones” in and around the Golan Heights that it captured from Syria in 1967.

This is not merely altruism: saving villages […] would strengthen Israel’s claim on the Golan. There are few Sunni Arabs here and the population is roughly balanced between Jewish settlers and Druze villagers.

Some 20,000 Druze live in the Golan. Israel has long given them the option of citizenship and more are now taking up that offer.

The war may yet change their loyalties irrevocably, allowing Israel to win any future referendum on the Golan’s status — and strengthen the case that the Golan Heights should not be considered occupied territory.

Between 110,000 and 140,000 Druze live in Israel proper, most in the Galilee region east of Haifa.

There are risks for Israel in aiding Syria’s Druze. Ben Caspit, an Israeli columnist and political analyst, writes at Al-Monitor that the country has tried hard not to get involved in the Syrian Civil War.

Current Israeli intelligence assessment is that the various forces fighting in Syria have no interest in dragging Israel into the fracas. “The moment we step foot into this mayhem,” a senior Israeli military source told me this week on condition of anonymity, “we will become part of the fray and we’ll become associated with one side or another. We have no interest in this.”

But Caspit also recognizes that atrocities against the Druze in Syria would make it extremely difficult for Israel’s leaders to ignore the pleas of their own Druze citizens.

Israel has a recognized historic record of assistance to any and every Jew who gets into trouble anywhere in the world. The Druze will rightfully demand equal rights in this realm too. They are Israeli citizens, they are joined by “a covenant of blood” with the state and the state ought to behave the same way with the Druze as it would with Jews who are in danger.

The Economist reports that the Israeli governments has already discreetly promised local Druze leaders that it will not stand aside if their Syrian brothers come under attack.

An Israeli intervention carries risks for Syria’s Druze as well. Haaretz cautions that Islamists like the Nusra Front could retaliate against Druze in Idlib in the north — where Israel would not be able to help.

However, in the long term, a disintegration of Syria — which Israeli strategists believe is likely — could improve the Jewish state’s security. An ethnic patchwork where Israel is surrounded by Druze, Kurdish, Shia and Sunni enclaves would mean it is “no longer the only vulnerable ethnic outsider,” according to Judah.

Israel supports the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who tend to be less antisemitic than Arabs, while smaller, ethnicity-based states could pose less of a threat to it than the secular dictatorships of the Middle East once did.

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