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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

The tragedy that befell the Druze in Syria is a stark reminder of their solo battle for survival

The impact of last week's slaughter by ISIS will likely shape political outcomes for years to come, writes Firas Maksad

Druze clerics and citizens sit next to the coffins of those who died during a serioes of ISIS attacks. EPA
Druze clerics and citizens sit next to the coffins of those who died during a serioes of ISIS attacks. EPA

Last week, under the darkness of night in the far-flung villages of southwest Syria, death came knocking at the doors of their slumbering Druze community. Dozens of families, unaware of the horrors about to befall them, awoke to flocks of ISIS fighters, guns slung over their desert robes, roaming their gardens and occupying their town squares.

What followed was one of the deadliest massacres committed by ISIS in Syria to date. Hundreds confirmed dead, men executed, women raped before their throats were slit and only a few chosen children spared intentionally to tell of the terror.

The tragedy that befell the Druze, an esoteric and compact community of about 700,000 in south Syria, is in many ways similar to that of other Middle Eastern minorities struggling to survive chronic state failures. The Yazidis of northern Iraq, driven out of their villages by the thousands in 2014, enslaved and forced to convert to the most extreme interpretation of Islam, were no different.

But while the victims in Iraq found some salvation in a US-led intervention, Syria’s Druze community must navigate their path to survival alone.

To that end, the Druze have been party to a number of ongoing Faustian bargains with the regime of Bashar Al Assad and, more recently, its Russian backers. Their aim and preference has been to remain fence-sitters in a conflict that has otherwise ended more than half a million lives.

They’ve managed to do so by pledging their continued loyalty – even if nominal at times – to the regime in Damascus in return for avoiding a compulsory military draft, one that would have them partake in atrocities against the country’s Sunni majority, with whom they want to co-exist.

This arrangement, challenged over the course of a seven-year war by rebel advances and overbearing regime officials, has largely held and has served the Druze well. Their lands bordering Jordan were left largely unscathed by the various parties to the conflict. Entrepreneurs among them served as middle-men between regime and rebel-held areas, trading and smuggling goods while turning a profit.

And although the Druze always feared a major ISIS attack from Syria’s vast eastern desert, some went as far as to buy much-needed diesel from them through tribal intermediaries.

Yet even before tragedy struck last Thursday, the good days of Syria’s fortunate community were coming to a close. On July 18, Russia, which has emerged as the major power broker in Syria with acquiescence from the Trump administration, sent a military delegation to meet Druze leaders. It informed them that tens of thousands of their men will now have to report for military duty.

Further, those who opposed Mr Al Assad were to be handed over and local self-defence forces were to disarm. The Druze sheikhs demurred on several of the demands but their fighters had begun demobilising before ISIS struck its devastating blow.

Not surprisingly, the Druze are now seething, angry at the regime and Russia for leaving them defenceless. Villagers are said to have rushed to aid their desperate brethren, confronting their well-armed attackers with kitchen knives and ancient muskets. Such is their resentment that many accuse Russia and the regime of purposely abandoning them to ISIS in order to tame them, forcing them to seek protection under full government control.

They see evidence of such collusion in a recent deal between Mr Al Assad and ISIS that saw hundreds of terrorists evacuated from a stronghold near Damascus to the desert from which they struck.

As is often the case with the convoluted conflicts of Arab lands, the true circumstances behind the Druze massacre might never be fully known and will become the stuff of competing legends. Nonetheless, the impact of this terrible episode is real and will likely shape political outcomes for years to come.

Will the Druze be less trusting of the regime and more adamant in their refusal of Russian-brokered arrangements? Or will they fold and return to full submission, judging that the Syrian conflict is in its closing stages and that the balance of power has shifted decidedly in favour of Damascus?

One popular Druze axiom offers insight about how they and other Middle Eastern minorities have operated to ensure their survival throughout history. It roughly translates as “the wait has ended, let us go pay our respect to the victor”.

With chaos in Washington and the Trump administration signalling its willingness to follow Russia’s lead on Syria, the Druze might soon be reaching out to Moscow to congratulate and submit. Their fate will be no different to that of other Syrians who once believed they could rely on American support but must now trade their aspirations for basic freedoms to insure their physical survival.

Firas Maksad is the director of Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank. He is also adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs