Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Druze ‘neutrality’ tested in Syria

Fighters from Syria’s Druze community have helped regime forces in the south of the country, breaking with their tradition of neutrality in the conflict, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Syria
Syria
Al-Ahram Weekly

Syria’s Druze have long walked a thin line between the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition.

But recently, and altering the outcome of a crucial battle in the south, fighters from the Druze-dominated Al-Suwayda governorate came to the regime’s help, preventing the combined forces of the opposition Southern Front (SF) from seizing a crucial airbase in the south.

The Southern Front (SF), led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), managed to seize various positions previously held by the regime’s 52nd Brigade in the past few weeks. This was a relief to the inhabitants of the Daraa governorate, who had often come under shelling from these positions.

But when the SF started a campaign to seize Al-Thala Airport, it was met by unexpected resistance, not from the regime’s forces that it expected to overrun, but from the presumed neutral Druze residents of Al-Suwayda.

Located at the edge of the Al-Suwayda governorate, Al-Thala is the largest military airbase in southern Syria. It is from Al-Thala that the regime has been launching its air campaign against Daraa, the governorate which launched the Syrian Revolution four years ago.

Composed of nearly 55 armed groups unified under the banner of the FSA, the SF is predominantly composed of Daraa fighters.

The SF is committed to fighting not only the regime, but also ultra-radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) group and the Al-Nusrah Front. Its commanders have pledged their commitment to the international laws of war, and its leaders have promised to end all military operations once the regime has fallen.

From that moment on the SF has pledged to stay out of politics and to merge its members with the police forces or turn them into civil-defence teams.

When the SF launched its offensive against the Al-Thala airbase, it managed within hours to seize most of the airport and would have gained full control had the Druze not intervened on the regime’s side.

The SF offered every possible assurance to the Druze that it did not mean them harm, and even arranged for a free exit to all Druze who were in the base at the time of the assault. But none of this succeeded in keeping the Druze out of the confrontation.

Since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, Syria’s Druze, who make up nearly three per cent of the population and are concentrated in Al-Suwayda, have largely taken a position of neutrality in the conflict.

But many Druze have still joined the pro-regime militia, or collaborated with its war effort. The opposition, recognising the immense pressure the war has put on the Druze, has left them alone, assuming that their collaboration with the regime would end the day the regime falls.

But as the revolutionaries have advanced in the south, reports have indicated that IS units were marching towards Al-Suwayda, passing unchallenged through regime positions. The reports prompted the Druze to declare general mobilisation in their areas.

When the Al-Thala battle started, Al-Suwayda came under rocket fire, with residents saying the shelling had come from the direction of a regime military barracks and that it aimed to turn the Druze against the revolutionaries.

Apparently, this did the trick. Before long, the Druze had sent combatants to fight alongside the regime and prevent the fall of the Al-Thala airbase, making sure that the military duel would end in a draw.

It is possible that this reaction on the Druze side was motivated by fear of retaliation from regime forces.

FS spokesman Essam Al-Rayyes said that the revolutionaries had held back before storming the Al-Thala base in order to give a chance to the Druze to leave in peace.

“We agreed with the elders of the Druze community to protect them and ensure the safe exit of their sons who were fighting at the airport,” Al-Rayyes said. “But they still sent reinforcements to the regime forces at the airport.”

Bashar Al-Zoabi, an SF commander, said the regime had allowed groups of IS fighters to come to Al-Suwayda in order to scare the Druze.

“Al-Suwayda has nothing to fear from the Syrian opposition. It is a Syrian governorate and its inhabitants are Syrians. But it must make up its mind. Either it decides to side with the regime or with the free people of Syria,” Al-Zoabi said.

Raed Munzir, an anti-regime activist living in Al-Suwayda, said the inhabitants of the city were worried about what could happen if the regime were to pull out its forces from their city.

“Every city that the opposition has entered has been shelled by the regime,” he said.

 Since the start of the revolution four years ago, the regime has tried to scare the country’s minorities into submission. Unless they side with the regime, they may lose everything, the regime’s propagandists have argued.

This argument has worked with the country’s Alawites in particular and the Shia in general. But other minorities, such as the Christians, Druze, Armenians and Assyrians, have mostly chosen a position of neutrality. These make up 25 per cent of the country’s population.

The Druze are not part of the regime and have no stake in its survival, but they have their own concerns. In the current conflict, the Druze have refused to send their sons into military service, and the regime, careful not to alienate them, has accepted that.

But the Druze have not come up with a policy on the civil war either. Many of them listen to the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who is against the Syrian regime but is eager to keep his community out of harm’s way.

However, some powerful leaders in the Druze community have close ties with the Syrian regime and often urge the young to side with the regime against the opposition.

Druze military officer Marawan Al-Hamad, who has defected from the Syrian army, said that some people in Al-Suwayda opposed the regime and others supported it. But the only people allowed to carry guns in the city were regime supporters.

“The opposition does not dare to carry weapons,” he added.

Al-Hamad urged the Druze to turn against the regime. “The regime is collapsing, and the Druze must join the revolution,” he commented.

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