Posted on: 30th October 2014
A small mountainous area of the Levant comprising southwest Syria, southern Lebanon and northern Israel is home to around one and a half million Druze, who refer to themselves as ahl al-tawhid, or 'the people of the oneness of God'. Little known by outsiders, and little understood even by their neighbours, this religious and social community constitutes a small but politically important minority in this region beset by tension. While in recent decades the policy of the Druze towards regional conflict has been to practice pragmatic minimal intervention, events in Syria are now forcing the Druze to consider which political strategy can best protect them from violence.
The Druze follow a religion that is variously considered an offshoot of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, or as a monotheistic religion in its own right. Many of its beliefs, including a belief in reincarnation, vary considerably from orthodox Islam. Indeed, the Druze incorporate elements from other religions, reportedly including a strong influence from Ancient Greek philosophers. The Druze are Arabic speakers, and do not consider themselves a separate ethnic group, but rather a social group within their respective national contexts.
The origins of the Druze and their ethno-religious classification are a matter of debate among academics, but the unity and solidarity of the Druze, even between communities in different countries, has been an inescapable political reality in the region for hundreds of years. Beyond this, Druze politics is characterised by non-intervention in conflict except for purposes of defence, and co-operation with the ruling authority of the state in which they live, meaning that there is no history of Druze separatism. An example of this co-operation is the generally warm attitude of Druze in Israel towards the state. Druze men take part in military service in the Israeli army, and are proportionally over-represented in Israeli politics and its civil service, in contrast to the state's Palestinian Arab citizens.
In Syria, which has a Druze population of around 700,000, the Druze heartland (Jabal al-Druze) in the southwest of the country has long been a strategic region for Assad, given its border with the Israeli-occupied (and Druze majority) Golan Heights. Since the outset of the Syrian civil war, the strategic importance of the area has increased: it is adjacent to the city of Daraa – the starting point of the uprising against Assad in 2011. Since then, the salafi-jihadi and al-Qaeda aligned, Jabhat al-Nusra and other opposition forces have taken control of large parts of the region, including most of the border with the Golan Heights. This area is the largest opposition stronghold in the south of Syria, less than 40 kilometres from Damascus. The regime thus views the retention of the allegiance of the Druze as essential to the defence of Damascus from the south.
Although in the early days of the Syrian uprising some Druze leaders spoke out in support of the protestors and some members of the community have joined opposition groups, the majority of Druze who have participated in the Syrian civil war have done so either through the Syrian army, or through Druze militias. The principle militia Jaysh al-Muwahhiddeen has been cooperating with the regime's army to a greater or lesser extent, but their narrative is framed in exclusively defensive terms, stating that their objective is simply the protection of the Druze from any threat to them. In practice, this has meant alignment with Assad, as the strongest actor in the region.
The unorthodox practices of the Druze mean they have long been the target of takfir.
However, the emergence of salafi-jihadi groups as one of the predominant faces of the opposition to the regime has dramatically changed the nature of the conflict. The principle of takfir, declaring others to be kuffar (non-Muslim) and thereby legitimising violence against them, forms a central tenet of the ideology of groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and has underpinned atrocities such as massacres of Yazidis and Shia Muslims by ISIS. Although many Druze consider themselves to be Muslim, their unorthodox practices mean that they have long been the target of takfir. The 13th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, whose philosophy has been influential to the development of modern salafi-jihadism, declared in a religious ruling about the Druze: 'They are kuffar and all Muslims agree. In fact anyone who doubts this is himself kuffar just like them ... They are to be killed wherever they are found'. The Druze in Syria now have a well-founded fear that, without protection, their community is in danger of this brutal violence.
In August 2014, after clashes between the Druze and Jabhat al-Nusra in which 12 Druze men were reported to have been killed, Druze leaders gathered in Suwayda, Southern Syria, demanding that the Assad regime supply them with more and heavier weapons to protect their community. In the case of the regime's failure to do this, some Druze leaders are arguing openly that their community must procure weapons from other sources to defend their community, with or without the consent of the regime. Meanwhile, some Druze in Lebanon are voicing their concern and willingness to support their Syrian brothers. The choice facing the Druze is thus closer integration with the Assad regime or a sectarian and independent defence strategy.
The possibility of Druze armed militias operating independently of Assad, potentially with the support of Lebanese Druze, would likely further raise tensions in Lebanon, already destabilised by the impact of the Syrian civil war. However, for now, the dominant view among Druze is towards maintaining allegiance to Assad. The Druze position is indicative of the way in which the conflict has evolved from a civil rights-based uprising with a diverse support base to a sectarian struggle. The phenomenon of salafi-jihadism within the opposition has pushed minorities towards greater integration with Assad's camp. Fearing for their safety, they have been left with the regime as the least bad option.