Though it might seem as if Druze are in a position in which they have no good options, some of their options could prove, in the long-term, to be better than others.
Among recent developments affecting the esoteric, ethno-religious group is the fear that the regime will abandon Suweida after its attempts to clear the area of heavy weaponry; the fear of ISIS attacks, especially after the capture Palmyra, which gave the group direct access to the eastern parts of Sweida; the arrival of rebels to the Thaala military airbase in Sweida after seizing a key military base in Daraa, the 52nd Brigade in Harak; and finally, the killing of around 20 Druze civilians by Jabhat al-Nusra in a village north of Idlib on 10 June. Taken together, this would seem to leave the Druze no choice but to pick a side.
This increased external pressure has seemingly left the Syrian Druze with the following three main scenarios:
The Druze community—around 700,000 people—have to a great extent remained united, and have generally succeeded in staying on the sidelines of the conflict by neither allying with the rebels nor fighting with the regime. Since the beginning of the revolution, however, there has been a small minority within this community that has publicly opposed the regime’s use of violence. This internal division was discreet at first, as the majority of the Druze community was either silent or in favor of the regime. The religious Druze leaders in Syria were clear in their public support for the regime, which had a big influence over the decision by Druze people to not join the revolution.
This internal division started to become evident to the public over the past four years, reaching a peak in August 2014 when around 13 Druze were killed in an attack by Bedouins—allegedly supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra—on the village of Dama, Sweida. A new Druze leader, Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, who lost a brother in the attack, emerged thereafter when he publically criticized the Assad regime for not doing enough to protect the Druze community. Three months later, Balous called upon the regime to dismantle one of its air force checkpoints in Sweida, which has a reputation for harassing people. He later attacked and dismantled two checkpoints himself. Balous supporters reported earlier this month that they had blocked two regime convoys that were allegedly transporting tanks and artillery out of the province towards Damascus. Balous also called on Druze youth not to join the Syrian Army and warned the regime against forcing them to do so.
On the other hand, the high Druze spiritual leadership responded to these incidents by issuing a statement condemning Balous’s actions and stripping him of his religious title. This sentence is considered to be one of the harshest a religious leader can face. The spiritual leadership continued to support the regime publicly when they recently asked youth Druze to join and fight under the Syrian Army. Though this internal division, which is still relatively small, might get bigger if the regime doesn’t totally collapse in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely it will last if threats against the Druze community continue to mount or if an imminent physical threat emerges.
In light of recent threats, Druze in Sweida have increasingly moved to arm themselves for protection, with sheikhs called for arming in a statement published on 27 March: “We will pursue a request to secure weaponry and appropriate logistical support immediately from the concerned bodies in the Syrian government.” The statement added that the community would only act as a secondary line of defense and called upon all popular committees and armed factions to declare their readiness to fight on behalf of the regime. Many recent reports stated that a number of religious leaders and retired officers had formed a new military command for all armed factions in the province called the Shield of the Homeland, led by Naief al-Aqel, a retired colonel.
It’s important to highlight here that according to Orient News, an opposition media group, Balous has taken a neutral position towards Shield of the Homeland until the true intentions of the group and its affiliation with the security service agencies are verified. He added that he would support the group if its real goal is to protect the homeland.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on 12 June that the rebels have been driven from Thaala airbase—which they partially captured the day before—with the support of Druze. The Observatory also added that dozens of Sweida residents had joined the Army and the National Defense Forces and played a key role in retaking the airbase. These reports align with what was reported earlier by the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat—that Hezbollah and Iran have a clear presence in Sweida where they have come to train these Druze militias just as Shiite militias were formed previously under the principle of resistance against extremists.
It might not be easy, at first, to understand why the Druze would make such a mistake by openly fighting alongside the regime. This is exactly what they have been trying to avoid from the beginning: the regime is clearly losing, so why go down with it? And the rebels have clearly stated that they won’t fight the Druze, and Druze have other ways of arming themselves, if that is the purpose, as other Druze communities in the region won’t abandon them.
On the other hand, supporters of this approach may argue that these groups will be ready to take over if the regime withdraws from Sweida. In other words: though some rebel groups might not fight us, they won’t defend us, either, while the regime and its allies are willing to arm and finance these operations, which will create jobs, so why not to use them? These groups will be deployed across Sweida for defense purposes only, and Druze youth won’t have to fight outside of Sweida anymore.
Unlike in Swedia, the Druze in Idlib have neither the manpower nor resources to protect themselves, nor are they under a direct threat by rebels there. Therefore, this option will most likely not be applicable there, unless something major happens and they become a target for extremist groups, which is not the case yet. Therefore, even if the Druze in Sweida fully back this option, the Druze in Idlib will most likely distance themselves from it.
This option has until recently been the official position of Druze in Syria, despite public support for the regime by their spiritual leaders, who have supported Assad publically but refrained from engaging military. It seems that the odds are not in favor of this option as threats are mounting and remaining unarmed and neutral is clearly not what Druze leaders see as fitting, at least for the foreseeable future. Allying with or at least using Assad seems to be the choice of the majority of Druze leaders, while allying with the rebels doesn’t seem like an option—it won’t make a big difference on the ground, as they would most likely not fight outside of Sweida, and it would very likely lead to the destruction of their areas by Assad’s barrel bombs as a collective punishment. That being said, it’s not to say that this option may not be on the table again when Druze no longer find it useful to ally with the regime and when the best alternative is to reconcile with the rebels.
Though allying with Assad might look as if it is the least bad option in the short term, it will most likely be the bloodiest option in the long run. Other options are still available and doable, especially with the big number of potential and powerful allies, regionally and internationally, who might be willing to pave a way out for Syria’s Druze.