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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Across borders, the Druze look out for themselves with tenacity

They are officially loyal to the Assad regime, but the Druze of Syria face difficult choices, says Massimo Di Ricco
A young member of the Druze minority waves a Druze flag.  (Ariel Schalit / AP)
A young member of the Druze minority waves a Druze flag. (Ariel Schalit / AP)

Speculation over the active participation of the Druze community in the Syrian civil war seems to ignore that the community’s priority is survival.

The story of the late Princess Amal Al Atrash illustrates this situation perfectly. An Arab singer of Syrian origin, she was better known as Asmahan. She belonged to a prominent Druze family in Sweida in southwestern Syria. She was forced to leave Syria for Cairo because of the pressure on her family from the French colonial authorities.

In Cairo, Asmahan had a successful artistic career although she managed to alienate herself from her community and her family, who used to constantly ask her for money and threatened the diva lifestyle she loved. After her death in an accident in 1944, rumours started to spread that Asmahan had spied for both the British and the Germans during the Second World War and that she had served to promote Druze interests as well. Clearly, Asmahan's eccentric life is a tale of rebellion, pragmatism, lasting community ties and shared Druze values.

Asmahan’s story is worth recalling in the context of recent speculation about the Syrian Druze community’s probable stance in the Syrian civil war after four years of maintaining a cautious loyalty to Damascus.

Officially, they have stayed loyal to the Assad regime. The community, which has no real political leader in Syria, is attempting to maintain a united and cautious position.

But anti-regime rebels have been making advances in areas where the Druze live in northern Syria and in Jabal in the south of the country. The Druze’s main priority is survival. For the community to adopt a clear position in the continuing conflict and to actively participate in it would require certain conditions on the ground that are currently missing from the picture.

The community’s history in the region provides suggestions as to their next step. First of all, there are plenty of examples of the Druze assuming a cautious stance in a conflict. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Druze fighters carefully waited to engage the Phalangists, who moved in to control the mixed Christian-Druze area of Jabel Chouf. When the Israeli army left the region in 1983, young Druze leader Walid Jumblatt quickly started a bloody war against the Lebanese Forces, again retaking full control of the area.

In 2004, when the Bush administration put pressure on Syria to get out of Lebanon, Mr Jumblatt decided to join the anti-Syria coalition, which managed through popular mobilisation to push the Syrian army out of Lebanon.

Mr Jumblatt’s wife, Nora, took on a major role in organising the protest in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. At the time, conditions in Lebanon seemed perfect to secure victory and reinforce the community’s position in the political arena.

Then, just last month, more than 20 Druze were killed in Idlib in northwestern Syria by Al Nusra Front, a group that is linked to Al Qaeda. At the time, Mr Jumblatt, who had reportedly done a deal with Al Nusra Front in March, tried to cast Idlib as an isolated incident. But other Lebanese Druze leaders have offered military support to the Syrian Druze.

This brings us to the recent attack on an Israeli military ambulance carrying wounded Al Nusra Front fighters on the occupied Golan Heights. A Druze mob attacked the ambulance because they had been informed that the Israelis were providing medical assistance to Al Nusra Front fighters. The episode focused Israel’s attention on the fate of the Syrian Druze.

Now, the Israeli Druze are asking for international military intervention in Syria. They are raising money for their Syrian brethren and putting pressure on the Israeli government to help.

Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon finally acceded to the community’s demands, publicly admitting that Israel was providing aid to Syrian rebels to keep the Syrian Druze out of immediate danger.

The patchwork merely underlines the complicated links and relationships of the Druze community across the region.

Despite the questions being asked about the Syrian Druze’s loyalty to Bashar Al Assad, at this point they may not be willing to take a definitive stance against Damascus, at least until the ground realities change.

When Syrian Druze actively engage in the war it will mean that Mr Al Assad is irreversibly starting to lose power. The only constant with the Druze community is that they will look after their own needs.

Massimo Di Ricco is a lecturer at the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla in Colombia and research fellow at the University of Tarragona, Spain

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