What the Sweida Druze mean to Daesh employers
The Druze may be unlucky for being the most loyal minority to an identity facing an unknown future. They are perhaps the Arabs’ Arabs, and the Middle Eastern community that has never felt naturally at ease except with its Arab identity. Even before the emergence of Arabism in its contemporary political context in the late 19th century, the Druze felt most attached to it without much extremism or showmanship.
It is true that both the French and British mandates created new realities on the ground in 1920, 1943 and 1948, and interest-based specificities emerged among the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian Druze. However, it is also true that the unifying bonds remained strong, and any harm that befell one community deeply touched the other two.
Druze everywhere are living the aftermath of the “Black Wednesday” massacre in Sweida province in southern Syria. Throughout their history up until the current dark period, the Druze have always had two priorities in life: Defending their land and honor, and remaining the masters of their own destiny. Examining these two priorities, one finds the backbone of the raison d’etre of this Muslim Arab constituent community in the Arab Mashreq region.
For example, because of their attachment to their land, the Druze have refused to leave their villages in northern Palestine, tolerated Israel’s occupation, and as much as possible fought within its political system and parties, simply because it respected their specificity.
Today, however, they are resisting the “Jewish nation-state” law, which declares Israel a Jewish state, because it discriminates against them, against every Arab, and against anyone who advocates diversity and coexistence.
In Lebanon, the Druze have always fought for their existence and confronted all attempts to penetrate and divide them in a country plagued by sectarianism from the top down. As for Syria, in a continuously changing regional and national scene, the Druze stood up for their identity, culture, independence, and even regional independence.
In the early 19th century, they fought the Egyptian expedition of Ibrahim Pasha, and in the 1920s rose up against the French Mandate. They took part in pan-Arab, non-sectarian and pro-independence movements. Even their two small concentrations in northwest Syria (Idlib province) and southwest Syria (Quneitra province) have stubbornly and valiantly defended themselves against formidable aggressors, and shed a lot of blood in battles for survival.
Today, the Druze are again facing great danger as they live in a geographical crossroad of intersecting interests of powers much larger than themselves, all of which seem to lack a proper and clear strategy.
There are around 53,000 Druze of conscription age who refuse to fight for Assad’s regime because they value what is left of the bonds that unite all Syrians.
Eyad Abu Shakra
The Syrian uprising initially confused the Druze, so they hesitated in making a well-thought-out choice with or against the Assad regime, which has gradually become a security incubator for Iranian regional expansionism, a tactical ally of Moscow and a seasonal customer for Washington, in addition to its familiar role as an unofficial conduit between Israel and Iran.
The Druze had known all along the implicit sectarian nature of the Assad regime, and suffered from its intentional harassment and blackmail over the issue of lands, but they were uneasy about some elements of the Syrian uprising.
Furthermore, some observers — rightly or wrongly — claim that their tardiness in backing the uprising encouraged other minorities to withhold their support, thus serving the interests of sectarian elements and allowing them to hijack the uprising after benefitting from the policy of brutal suppression and mass displacement adopted by the regime and its backers.
However, the Druze soon felt that they had no interest in becoming hostages to a regime that, contrary to its claims, does not protect minorities, but rather uses them as shields, trades in fear, and provokes one minority against another.
Indeed, as suppression escalated, especially in Daraa province — which borders Sweida from the west — a strong internal Druze movement rose in Sweida, openly rejecting civil war and calling for carrying arms only in self-defense within the province’s boundaries.
The movement, known as Mashayekh Al-Karama (Sheikhs of Dignity), soon gained great respect for its insistence that the Druze of Swieda should not fight their brethren in other parts of Syria. The regime’s response to this defiant stance in 2015 was to kill the movement’s leader, Sheikh Wahid Al-Bal’ous, who once uttered the famous words: “Our dignity is dearer than Bashar Assad.”
At present, there are around 53,000 Druze of conscription age who refuse to fight for Assad’s regime and the sectarian militias that back it, because they value what is left of the bonds that unite all Syrians. Some observers believe this stance was behind the collusion that allowed the “Black Wednesday” massacre to take place.
Conflicting strategic, tactical, local, regional and international interests do not allow a certain community to remain neutral and maintain a position that can be an example to follow and put an end to bloodshed, destruction and partition.
There is no need to discuss what Daesh is, how and why it is employed and exploited, or how it has developed. It is enough to say that it is nothing but a pawn that each major player uses to its own benefit, while claiming to fight it. On the other hand, many are talking of diverging positions between tactical partners and allies.
Russia is exploiting Washington’s preoccupation with deciding its priorities to increase its influence in the Middle East, but it lacks the proper understanding of a region it thinks it knows. Russia has no interest in intentionally harming the Druze, but so far it continues to blindly follow what the Assad regime wants from it.
Iran’s calculations, however, are quite different. They are based on geopolitical revenge against both the Arabs and Sunni Islam. This is clear from the policy of systematic displacement, which will include the Druze if they continue to refuse to join Iran’s campaign against Arabs and Sunnis.
Finally, there is Israel, the major player in deciding what happens in southern Syria. Israel’s considerations in dealing with Iran vary from selective support to necessary containment. Israel knows what it wants, and perhaps like Iran, knows the geopolitical and demographic calculations.
So the outcome of developments in southern Syria will be decided by its final choices regarding the limits of Iranian military withdrawal if imposed, and the ceiling allowed for the employment and exploitation of Daesh’s gangs.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat.