Syria’s Druze minority: walking a war-time tightrope

A group of Druze women and children, abducted in July from Sweida by the Daesh group, being welcomed by relatives upon their arrival overnight in their hometown in the southern Syrian province of Sweida. (File/AFP)
Updated 21 November 2018
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Syria’s Druze minority: walking a war-time tightrope

  • Daesh began attacking Sweida province in 2015, first targeting Khalkhalah military airport
  • Syria’s Druze have protected their heartland in Sweida with their own forces

BEIRUT: Syria’s Druze minority, whose men are being called up for military service by Damascus, is struggling to insulate itself from the conflict that has engulfed the country since 2011.
Here is a summary of the community’s profile, its role in Syria’s conflict and the attacks it has faced.

The Druze community accounted for around three percent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.
They are located mainly in the southern province of Sweida with smaller pockets around Damascus and in the northwest, although some have fled militant-held parts of the latter area.
Druze are monotheistic and considered Muslim, but the sect is otherwise highly secretive, includes mystical elements such as reincarnation, and does not allow new converts.
Some 200,000 Druze are located in neighboring Lebanon and over 100,000 are in Israel, while 18,000 live in the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Syria’s Druze have been split by the uprising that erupted in 2011 against President Bashar Assad, who had long portrayed himself as a protector of the country’s minorities.
Druze should not be seen “as being neutral in this war — it’s more multifaceted and the Druze are not a monolithic bloc,” said Tobias Lang, an analyst focused on Druze populations in the Middle East.
One of the first soldiers to defect from Syria’s army in protest at its handling of demonstrations was Druze officer Khaldun Zeineddine, who later died in clashes against regime forces.
Others remained firmly loyal, like General Issam Zahreddine, one of the highest-ranking Druze army officers who died last year in a mine blast after battling the Daesh group in Syria’s east.
Druze leaders have often tried to maintain a relationship with the regime to keep their areas autonomous and spare them from government attacks.
One symbol of that complex relationship was Wahid Al-Balous, a Druze religious authority who pushed for the sect’s soldiers to be deployed near their hometowns, rather than in other provinces.
Balous, who died in a car bomb attack in Sweida in 2015, spoke out against both militants and Assad.

Syria’s Druze have protected their heartland in Sweida with their own forces.
The most powerful has been the Sheikhs of Dignity, which was headed by Balous and included fighters and other religious figures.
Sheikhs of Dignity has fought fierce battles against the Daesh group and Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Other militias have been closely linked to the regime, including the Dareh Al-Watan (Shield of the Nation), a Druze force founded in April 2015 with 2,000 fighters.
Such groups appear to have protected Sweida’s sons from compulsory military service, with authorities turning a blind eye so long as young men fight in units not opposed to the regime.
But with the regime hungry for fresh conscripts, that deal appears to be coming apart at the seams and Assad has now called on young Druze men to serve.
His appeal came after Damascus announced the release this month of Druze women and children who had been kidnapped during a July attack by Daesh.

That onslaught by the militants left more than 260 people dead, mostly civilians. It was the worst attack against the minority so far but not the first.
A car bomb in 2012 ripped through Damascus’ Jaramana suburb, which is mostly Druze and Christian.
In 2013 and 2014, fierce fighting between Syrian rebels and pro-regime Druze forces rocked Sweida province and Druze areas closer to Damascus.
Daesh began attacking Sweida province in 2015, first targeting Khalkhalah military airport.
The same year, 20 Druze Syrians were killed in a shoot-out with Al-Qaeda militants in the village of Qalb Lawzah in northwestern Idlib province.
Druze residents of Qalb Lawzah had come out against the regime a year into Syria’s uprising.
In 2016, Daesh beheaded four laborers in an area it controlled outside Damascus, accusing them of being Druze.
And in 2017, a car bomb killed nine people in Hader, a regime-held village in the southwestern province of Quneitra mostly populated by Druze.


Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

Updated 16 July 2019
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Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

  • EU foreign ministers said they are suspending talks with Turkey over air transport agreement
  • They backed EU’s proposal to decrease financial assistance to Turkey

ANKARA: Turkey on Tuesday rejected as “worthless” an initial set of sanctions approved by the European Union against Ankara, and vowed to send a new vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to reinforce its efforts to drill for hydrocarbons off the island of Cyprus.
EU foreign ministers on Monday approved sanctions against Turkey over its drilling for gas in waters where EU member Cyprus has exclusive economic rights. They said they were suspending talks on an air transport agreement, as well as high-level Turkey-EU dialogues, and would call on the European Investment Bank to review its lending to the country.
They also backed a proposal by the EU’s executive branch to reduce financial assistance to Turkey for next year. The ministers warned that additional “targeted measures” were being worked on to penalize Turkey, which started negotiations to join the EU in 2005.
Speaking at a news conference in Macedonia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the sanctions aimed to “appease” Cyprus and were of “no importance.”
“The EU needs us concerning the migration issue or other issues,” he said. “They will come to us and hold contacts; there is no escaping that.”
“They know that the decisions they took cannot be applied,” he said. “They were forced to take the worthless decisions under pressure from the Greek Cypriots and Greece.”
Cavusoglu added: “If you take such decisions against Turkey, we will increase our activities. We have three ships in the eastern Mediterranean, will with send a fourth.”
Earlier, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized the EU for ignoring the rights of Turkish Cypriots and accused the 28-nation bloc of “prejudice and bias.”
It added that Turkey was determined to protect its rights and the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
Two Turkish vessels escorted by warships are drilling for gas on either end of ethnically divided Cyprus. A third Turkish exploration ship is also in the area. Turkey insists that it has rights over certain offshore zones and that Turkish Cypriots have rights over others.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits.
Cypriot officials accuse Turkey of using the minority Turkish Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.
The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 68 kilometers off the island’s west coast.