Syria's Druze torn between Assad, extremists

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Article Summary
The Druze community in the southern city of Suwayda, Syria, is stuck between supporting a regime that refuses to provide the locality with weapons and extremist organizations that threaten to attack it.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed throughout three years of internal conflict to maintain the loyalty of many different religious minorities in the country, most notably Christians, Alawites and Shiites. It seems that these minorities — accounting for about a quarter of the Syrian population — still prefer Assad’s tyranny over an ambiguous future in the event the country falls into the hands of extremists.

The Druze, however, have started to distance themselves from Assad’s regime. Most Druze in Syria live in Suwayda city in the south near the border with Jordan. Their growing opposition to the regime and deep hostility toward extremist groups put the Druze in an exceptional position. Today, the Druze can help the emerging international coalition change the balance of the Syrian war and the fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, it was difficult to determine the Druze’s political affiliation, especially since they tend to hide their political convictions. Like many Syrians living in areas controlled by the regime, the Druze were afraid to express their opposition to Assad's rule. However, recently some Druze religious figures appeared in the media and declared their anti-regime sentiments. While in the past Druze sheikhs used to praise Assad, a number of them are today publicly issuing demands and warnings.

Druze are most bothered by the fact that Assad did not give them enough weapons to defend themselves against the attacks of Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaeda. Since the emergence of the popular uprising against the Syrian regime in 2011, the Syrian government has provided weapons to the forces loyal to Assad only, i.e., to Druze militias loyal to the regime. But the upsurge in attacks led many Druze to demand weapons, claiming that the pro-regime militias did not protect them as they should have. During a funeral service for Druze fighters on Aug. 17, 2014, a Druze Sheikh delivered a fiery statement requesting heavy weapons, asserting that if Assad fails to meet their demand, the Druze will not hesitate to seek other sources of armament. This statement revealed the growing divide between the Druze religious institution and the Syrian regime.

In another display of this growing divide, the Druze also called for the dismissal of their province’s top security official, Wafic Nasser. This campaign was launched in April, after government officials, led by Nasser, arrested a prominent Druze sheikh for opposing the compulsory celebration of Assad’s re-election. After the arrest, online videos showed militants raising the Druze flag, firing their guns in the air and calling for Nasser’s resignation, with a scorching rage recalling the events that first sparked the Syrian revolution. Also, in a display of solidarity, members of the Druze government-backed militias decided to join the religious men. The regime, however, refused Nasser’s dismissal, which increased tensions.

These tensions became clearer in August 2014 at the funeral service of a number of Druze fighters in the Suwayda Sports Complex that was attended by thousands. Online videos of the service showed few Syrian flags compared with hundreds of Druze banners.

Concerned, Assad sent on Sept. 2 two of his prominent Druze figures to relay to the Druze leaders the following message: “You want the state to fulfill your demand and it wants your loyalty.” Assad needs the Druze. They are a strategic barrier separating Damascus from the opposition-controlled regions in the south. However, unless the international coalition is willing to change Assad’s equation by supporting the Druze, Assad will probably remain on the same course, and the Druze will remain torn between an authoritarian regime they unwillingly need and the extremists they fear will attack them.

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Found in: syria, jabhat al-nusra, druze, bashar al-assad
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