RASHAYA, Lebanon—For over four years Syrian Druze have struggled to avoid being dragged into the brutal war that has ravaged their country and left more than 220,000 people dead. But now the conflict has come to them and this small esoteric sect has found itself caught between opposing sides, forced to choose which one to back.
The wars tearing apart the Middle East are struggles for power and control, with the primary antagonists essentially falling into either the Sunni or Shia branches of Islam.
In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is predominantly drawn from the Alawite sect, a splinter of Shia Islam, and is supported by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, both Shia. On the other side of the battle line, most Syrian rebel groups are composed of Sunnis and are backed by the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey.
That leaves the region’s religious minorities, facing the dilemma over whom to support to ensure survival. Among them are the Druze, who are members of an Abrahamic unitarian splinter sect of Ismaili Islam and considered heretical by both Sunni and Shia Muslims.
For much of the conflict, now in its fifth year, Syria’s Druze have generally paid lip service to the Assad regime. But some Druze leaders say the community has no choice but to ally with the mainly Sunni rebel opposition, arguing that the Alawite sect, which forms the backbone of the Assad regime, cannot prevail in the long term as Sunnis comprise about 72 percent of the country’s 22.5 million population. Druze account for just 3 percent.
“You can’t fight the majority of Syrians who are Sunnis,” said Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze community who has been urging Syrian Druze to abandon the Assad regime and reconcile with their Sunni neighbors.
Others maintain that the brutal actions of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, which view Druze as heretics, leave them no choice but to fight alongside Assad in an alliance of minorities. That explains why Syria’s smaller sects, including Christians and Shias, have continued to back Assad along with the Alawites and Druze.
“Only arms can protect you, and not silly words and statements,” Wiam Wahhab, a Lebanese Druze politician who is a staunch ally of Assad, said in a speech on June 11. Wahhab added that Syria’s Druze are ready to “defeat the terrorists” and that Lebanese Druze are prepared to assist. “We are ready to form an army of 200,000 fighters to defend the Druze,” he said.
Wahhab’s speech was in response to a massacre a day earlier of 24 Druze by Nusra fighters in the northern Syrian village of Qalb Lawza. Idlib province, where the village is located, is home to some 18,000 Druze. Earlier this year, Nusra forced the residents of Qalb Lawza and neighboring Druze villages to renounce their faith and embrace Sunni Islam or face death. Following the massacre, Nusra’s leadership took the unusual step of apologizing and blaming the incident on undisciplined fighters within its ranks.
Nevertheless, Nusra fighters recently surrounded the small Druze village of Hader, 30 miles southwest of Damascus, sparking fears of another massacre. The fighters are attempting to reach western Ghouta, an area to the south west of Damascus and adjacent to the border with Lebanon, that could serve as a springboard for an attack on the Syrian capital.
Nusra’s killing of Druze has stoked anger within the community, not just in Syria but in neighboring Lebanon and Israel too.
'Go into Syria and kill them'
Separating Hader in Syria from the Druze-populated town of Rashaya in southeast Lebanon is the rugged sepia-colored slopes of Mount Hermon, a 9,000-foot mountain straddling the Lebanon-Syria border. The Druze here have been keeping a close eye on developments across the border, worried about the fate of their brethren in Syria.
“We are in communications with the Druze villages on the other side of Mount Hermon and if Hader has any problem with Jabhat Al-Nusra we will go into Syria and kill them,” said Udai, a young Druze man using the Arabic name for the Nusra Front.
The imposing massif of Mount Hermon and the lack of roads and tracks crossing the border here make it unlikely that Nusra fighters will attempt to traverse Lebanese territory to reach western Ghouta. But local Druze residents say they are taking no chances and are prepared to defend their homes if necessary.
“Everyone has a gun under their bed, and we are known as fighters,” said Kamal Assaf, leader of the secular pro-Assad Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Rashaya, where Druze make up the majority of the group’s membership.
On the walls of Assaf’s office are the “martyr” pictures of two young Druze killed recently in fighting in Syria’s southern Deraa province. They were among a few dozen Lebanese Druze in Assad-allied political parties who volunteered to fight in Syria. One of the two dead, Faisal Attrash, is the great grandson of Sultan Pasha al-Attrash, a legendary figure among Syrian Druze who fought in the Arab Revolt in World War I with Lawrence of Arabia and then in 1925 led a revolution in Syria against the French mandatory authorities.
As in Syria, the Lebanese are generally split along sectarian lines. However, political leaders have been careful to avoid differences over Syria turning to violence in Lebanon.
Everyone has a gun under their bed, and we are known as fighters.
SSNP chief in Rashaya
In the southern Syrian province of Sweida, where most of Syria’s 500,000 Druze live, the loyalties of the Druze to the Assad regime have become increasingly strained. Despite general support for Assad, there has been a growing outcry lately over the forced conscription of young Druze men into the ranks of the exhausted and critically under-strength Syrian army.
Two weeks ago, Assad agreed that Druze army recruits from Sweida would be allowed to serve in their area, where they could defend the local Druze community against attacks by armed groups. But Sheikh Abu Fahad Wahid Balous, a prominent Druze sheikh, decreed that it is “strictly forbidden” for any Druze to join the army, a sign of hardening resolve against the Assad regime.
On the other hand, the regime has established a local militia in Sweida called the Shield of the Nation headed by a retired Syrian army colonel. According to Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader, the militia has been responsible for the torture and murder of several Sunni Bedouin tribesmen in the Sweida area. “The regime is doing its best to create sectarian strife between the Druze and the Sunnis … now they have provoked the Bedouin,” he said.
Creating tensions between the Druze and the powerful Bedouin tribes like the Annizah and Jabbour — the territories of which span the borders of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and reach to the Arabian Peninsula — is seen as a cynical attempt to keep the Druze loyal to Assad and the alliance of minorities.
Still, the fate of the Druze in southern Syria could be decided in the coming weeks depending on the result of a Sunni rebel offensive to seize the southern city of Deraa. If Deraa is captured, Assad will have lost his last toehold in southwest Syria along the border with Jordan, which could pave the way for the local Druze to switch sides and back the rebels. Jumblatt, who recently visited Jordan's capital Amman, said that he is working with the Jordanians to forge reconciliation between the Druze of Sweida and the Sunnis of the adjacent region of Hauran.
“It all depends on the battle of Deraa,” Jumblatt said. “If the rebels are able to take control of Deraa, it will be a big relief for us and then I think the Druze [of Sweida] will turn sides.”