Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Walking a thin line

Syria’s Druze community is being sucked into the conflict that has been tearing the country apart over the past four years, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

Al-Ahram Weekly

Of all the Druze leaders in Syria and Lebanon, Walid Junblatt is arguably the most powerful. He will need all the influence he can muster to defuse a current crisis that threatens the future of Syria’s Druze community.

‌The crisis started two weeks ago, with a confrontation between the Druze and Al-Nusra Front in the Qalb Loza village in the Idlib governorate of northern Syria. According to some reports, a gun battle between the two sides led to the death of 23 Druze and four Al-Nusra Front members.

Several Druze officials, including Lebanese MP Talal Arsalan and former minister Weam Wahhab, called it a “massacre.” Junblatt tried to play down the clash, saying that what had happened was an “isolated incident” and could be resolved through talks between the Druze and Al-Nusra Front.

Junblatt criticised the media campaign launched by some Druze leaders in Lebanon against the Al-Nusra Front, saying that the crisis could be defused through political means. On 14 June, he sent one of his close associates, Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abu Faour, to Turkey to discuss the crisis.

Abu Faour came back with promises from Turkish officials and members of the Syrian opposition that such confrontations will be avoided in the future. Rumour has it that the ultraconservative Al-Nusra Front and like-minded groups have been putting pressure on the Druze to “convert” to Islam. But the Turkey-based opposition leaders offered assurances to the contrary.

Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict that has been tearing the country apart. Every day, hundreds more are killed by barrel bombs, Junblatt said. He urged the Druze in Syria, a minority of 500,000 people in a nation of 24 million, not to start a feud with members of the Syrian opposition.

Some Druze clerics, particularly the influential Sheikh Naim Hassan, followed Junblat’s example and played down the crisis. But several Druze leaders who support the Syrian regime also lashed out against Al-Nusra Front.

Talal Arsalan, head of the Lebanese Democratic Party, and Weam Wahhab, leader of the Arab Unification Party, threatened to raise a force of 200,000 men to defend Al-Suwayda, a stronghold of the Druze community, against incursions by Syrian opposition groups.

Junblatt, meanwhile, stated that the hard-line Al-Nusra Front was not, as some have claimed, a terrorist group, but was a “legitimate faction” of the Syrian Revolution. Over the past few months, Junblatt has tried to mediate with Al-Nusra Front in another crisis, that of abducted Lebanese army personnel. His efforts have yet to bear fruit, however.

The Druze are not in an easy position. Struggling for survival in a turbulent environment of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Palestinians and Israelis is not always easy. The Druze have had to use a blend of political intrigue and military prowess to avoid being marginalised by other more numerous ethnic and sectarian groups.

The Druze have also lost their demographic edge over the years, as their birth rate has been lower than that of other Lebanese and Syrian communities. The Druze marry exclusively within their sect, and they don’t encourage conversion to their creed.

The fact that Junblatt has made no secret of his hostility to the Syrian regime may limit his ability to defuse the current crisis, as some of the Druze have either been sympathetic to the regime or remained neutral in the battle between the regime and its adversaries.

His efforts to mediate could also be undermined by hard-line Salafis who regard the Druze as apostates who must either “repent” or face life as second-class citizens, options that the battle-hardened Druze are unlikely to accept.

The best Junblatt can hope for is to press for reconciliation between the Druze and mainstream Sunnis, and hope that the latter will be able to keep the hotheads of the ultraconservative Al-Nusra Front under control.

In another confrontation in southern Syria, Junblatt has called on the Druze of Al-Suwayda to reconcile themselves with the Sunnis of the city of Daraa, who mostly come from moderate Bedouin roots.

But as influential as he is, Junblatt is only one of many players on the Syrian scene. And the regime, weakened but not yet powerless, has been trying to use the Druze as allies in the current conflict.

This is why Junblatt is proceeding with caution in Syria. And although he has played down the crisis in the country, he does not seem completely opposed to the more hard-line approach offered by rivals in the Druze camp, including Talal Arsalan.

In secret talks held recently between Junblatt and Druze clerics, Junblatt was said to have praised Arsalan, his political rival who is allied with the Syrian regime.

For now, it seems that the Druze in Syria will have to walk a thin line between opposing the regime and accommodating it, confronting the ultra-Sunnis and collaborating with other revolutionaries, holding onto their territories and staying on good terms with their neighbours.

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