The Druze, officially known as Al Muwahhidun Al Duruz, are a monotheistic religious community found primarily in Syria (700,000), Lebanon (400,000), Israel (100,000) and Jordan (20,000).
The sect, which emerged in the 11th century as an offshoot of Shia Ismailism, follows an eclectic set of beliefs incorporating elements from various religions and philosophies.
In Syria, most Druze live in the Jabal Al Druze - also known as the Jabal Al Arab - a rugged and mountainous region in the south-west of the country, which historically provided them with a refuge from persecution. More than 90 per cent of the area is Druze inhabited, with 120 villages exclusively Druze.
The Druze have always played a more significant role in Syrian politics than their demographic weight would suggest. Despite numbering little more than 100,000 in 1949, or roughly three per cent of the population, the Druze had a major part in the struggle against French colonialism, contributing much of the military force behind the Great Revolt of 1925-1927 and suffering 55 per cent of all Syrian casualties.
Their chieftain, Sultan Pasha Al Atrash, had turned down an offer of Druze autonomy from France with the words "Religion is to God, country is for all", joining the Sunni Muslim revolutionaries who made up most of the other anti-French rebels.
Adib Al Shishakli later underlined the importance of the Druze during his rule of Syria (1949 to 1954) when, seeking to enforce central control over a fractured country, he sent a powerful modern army in a bloody campaign to crush Druze rebels: "My enemies are like a serpent: the head is the Jabal Al Druze, the stomach Homs, and the tail Aleppo. If I crush the head the serpent will die."
Shishakli was assassinated in Brazil on September 27, 1964 by a Druze in revenge for that attack.
Under both president Hafez Al Assad and his heir, Bashar, the Druze enjoyed a certain amount of protection and preferential treatment, although their community remained largely impoverished farmers or state employees living on meagre salaries, with many young Druze emigrating from Syria in search of opportunities.